The Magic Johnson-Lakers fiasco is a case study in how not to be a transformational leader

The Magic Johnson-Lakers fiasco is a case study in how not to be a transformational leader

magic johnson

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  • Magic Johnson had a rocky stint as the Los Angeles Lakers' president of basketball operations, according to sources at ESPN.
  • Some of his leadership practices, such as not meeting with his employees and making abrupt hiring decisions, go against what management experts say result in better employee performance.
  • One expert, former NFL coach Bill Parcells, had a different management style than Johnson's. Parcells turned three teams with losing records around during his tenure.
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Earvin "Magic" Johnson shocked the NBA after abruptly resigning from his high-ranking management position at the Lakers in April.

Johnson announced his decision to step down as president of basketball operations in a media interview before he told his boss, Lakers owner Jeannie Buss, and the team's star player, Lebron James. Sports journalist Adrian Wojnarowski said he'd never before seen anything like the reaction to Johnson's resignation.


To some Lakers employees, the move was the culmination of two years of poor management at the organization. Sources told ESPN that Johnson created a culture of fear at the Lakers, which led to at least two staffers suffering panic attacks.

Johnson and Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka rarely consulted the rest of staff when drafting players, according to reports. Whenever someone questioned Johnson, sources told reporters that he responded threateningly.

During his first meeting, sources told ESPN that Johnson demanded staffers fall in line with his decision making. If not, he reportedly said he would replace them with one of the "thousands" of job candidates he had at his disposal.


After two years at the helm, Johnson's Lakers didn't win much. They did not make the playoffs and had losing records each year, even after signing Lebron James. Johnson's bold leadership style reaped little rewards.

The basketball star's methods vary from those of another coach who took over a failing organization yet managed to lead it to victory: former NFL coach Bill Parcells. Parcells took over three teams with losing records - the New York Giants, the New England Patriots, and the New York Jets - and brought them to championship games and titles.

While Johnsons shied away from open conversation with his employees, Parcells credits open conversation with teammates and staffers to his wins. The former NFL coach said he watched and talked to every member of his team during one-on-one conversations. Management experts, including a former Google executive, also say frequent, honest conversations with employees leads to better performance.


"It's not until you look people right in the eye that you get to the sources of their behavior and motivation," Parcells wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2000. "Without confrontation, you're not going to change the way they think and act."

Parcells also differed from Johnson by the way he carefully chose his players. Sources told ESPN that Johnson and Pelinka signed players without consulting Lakers staff members - even those who worked with them closely in the past.

Parcells, on the other hand, would carefully choose players and staffers to bring on. Parcells said you may end up selecting a bad candidate without carefully studying and learning about the new employees you bring on - a move that can cause "serious damage" down the line. In the corporate world, unexpected departures can lead to serious disruptions in profits and business operations.


Although work, like sports, is often a team effort, Johnson and Parcells show how you lead from the top makes a difference for organizational success.