Michael Jordan's ability to manufacture motivation was legendary. And is a central theme in the new ESPN documentary The Last Dance.

The combination of Jordan's unmatched competitive drive and his extreme sensitivity to insults, slights, or snubs (whether real or imagined) helped make him the best player in the NBA, and arguably the greatest of all time.

And, clearly, hanging on to those feelings, at least where Isiah Thomas is concerned.

The Detroit Pistons knocked the Jordan-led Bulls out of the playoffs for three consecutive years. Plus, Thomas was assumed to have led a "freezeout" in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, in which Thomas and other NBA veterans kept the ball away from Jordan.

When the Bulls swept the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, Thomas and other Pistons starters walked off the court with time still left on the clock so they didn't have to congratulate the Bulls players. (John Salley and Joe Dumars did shake hands with at least a few Bulls.)

Here's Jordan, 30 years later, reflecting on that moment, and on Thomas's later justifications.

Granted, hanging on to certain feelings for decades -- long past their motivation expiration date -- might be taking things too far.

But if your motivation or enthusiasm is on the wane, sometimes an enemy is just what you need -- even if the competition is one-sided and imaginary. 

Healthy competition provides motivation. Healthy competition sparks creativity and innovation, raises performance, and helps individuals and teams accomplish goals. In sports, competition is a given; where business or career is concerned, often not.

So how can you reap the benefits of competition?

Find an enemy. Or, better yet, take a page from the Jordan playbook and make one up.

Maybe your enemy will be a local business. Or a regional competitor eating into your market share. Or maybe the guy down the hall who someday might be up for the same promotion. (I spent 17 years in corporate America doing just like that.)

Or you can pick a business or a person you don't directly compete with, but still decide to take on.

A friend runs a fitness club; his goal is to have more people walk through his doors than those of the nearby Starbucks. Imaginary competition? Sure. But for him, it's a motivating target. (Or was in pre-coronavirus days.)

If you don't already have an "enemy," pick one.

How will you benefit?

  1. You'll establish meaningful benchmarks. Setting internal improvement targets is relatively easy, but to make a real change in your business, try to do better than the best. What does your enemy do well? Define, quantify, and set targets accordingly. Maybe your competition has 98 percent on-time shipping. Maybe the salesperson down the hall brings in $90,000 in sales per month. You can't compete until you determine what your competition does well.
  2. You'll borrow tools from a proven toolbox. Coaches in all sports actively steal ideas, strategies, and plays from other coaches. Innovation is important, but why reinvent certain wheels when existing wheels already work extremely well? Determine how your enemy achieves great results and look for processes, competencies, concepts, or strategies you can incorporate.
  3. You'll differentiate, in a meaningful way. Benchmarking and adopting proven strategies and skills is important, but if that's all you do, the best result you'll achieve is a draw. You want to win, and to win you must stand out. What are your key strengths? How can you leverage those strengths to deliver what is most important to your customers or your boss? The more you know about your competition, the easier it is to differentiate in a way that truly matters.
  4. You'll naturally develop greater focus. We all risk falling prey to a "same stuff, different day" mentality -- but not when we're out to win. When we compete, focus and drive are as natural as breathing. If your enthusiasm dips, just picture your enemy moving ahead and you'll quickly shift back in gear. After all, while some people don't care about winning, nobody likes to lose.
  5. You'll have more fun. Seriously. Trust me.

But also remember your goal is to "win" on merit. If your competition is another business, beat them fair and square with higher productivity, better quality, greater market share -- whatever form of competition you choose. If your enemy is another employee, work hard to gain skills, land highly visible assignments, and earn the promotion on the basis of merit.

Always take the high road. Otherwise, even when you win, you still lose.

Also keep in mind the concept of "winning" is often relative, especially when the competition is one-sided and visible only to you. Your enemy may never know you were competing.

And that's OK. If finding and beating an "enemy" helps you improve your company's results, or your results, there are no losers.