The Lakers played mediocre basketball under Johnson's leadership, but Johnson didn't cite subpar performance as the reason for his exit. Instead, he focused on something more personal.
"Tomorrow, I would have to affect somebody's livelihood and life, and I thought about it and said, that's not fun for me. That's not who I am," Johnson said in a press conference. "I want to go back to having fun. I want to go back to who I was before taking on this job."
That's an instructive concept. Though Johnson's decision was sudden, it came from a place of clarity and self-awareness.
The truth is that leadership is many things--fulfilling, energizing, exciting--but it often isn't fun. Here's why:
Leadership requires making unpopular decisions.
In his resignation, Johnson hinted at stress about likely having to fire Lakers head coach Luke Walton.
Like any CEO, I've had to let several people go over the years at Acceleration Partners. It's a difficult but necessary part of leading a company that people don't like to talk about. These decisions were ultimately the best ones for the company and for those individuals, even if they didn't realize it at the time.
While letting people go is a common challenge of leadership, it's just one of many. Leadership requires making decisions that are unpopular. It means being responsible for the livelihood of hundreds, or thousands, being judged publicly and constantly being in the spotlight.
You cannot be everybody's friend.
Johnson was already a basketball legend when he assumed the role of Lakers president. His relationships with current players were considered an asset to the Lakers, especially after he successfully recruited LeBron James to join the team last summer.
But Johnson struggled with the restrictions of being an executive. The National Basketball Association has strict tampering rules, and Johnson was fined multiple times for appearing to be recruiting other teams' players. Johnson's gregarious personality is as intertwined with his image as his basketball talent, and he wanted to be, in his own words, "a big brother to everybody."
A challenge of leadership is that it's impossible to be everybody's friend. You'll have competitors who need to be kept at a respectful distance, even at the best of times. You'll have to set professional boundaries with employees. You will have to make decisions objectively, without being led astray by personal feelings.
Johnson made it clear he wasn't happy when his leadership responsibilities interfered with his passion for building relationships with and mentoring players. That unhappiness only grew over time and helped contribute to his resignation.
You shouldn't change your core.
Effective leaders are both authentic and self-aware. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are and lead accordingly.
You can't--and shouldn't--expect a person will change their personality or temperament when they take on a leadership role. Leadership often doesn't change a person's character--it reveals their character and magnifies their core values.
If a leader is hard-working and accountable, they'll build an organization that meets high expectations. If a leader is duplicitous, they'll create a culture of fear and mistrust.
Johnson understood he was not an ideal fit for the job. Leaders have to take a deep look at themselves: what they value, what they do well, what their flaws are. It requires a considerable amount of introspection.
The best thing you can do is to be authentically yourself, rather than trying to change yourself drastically. If your personality and temperament isn't suited for the role, often, the best thing you can do is exit.
Leadership isn't fun, and success as a leader depends on how you handle its challenges. Johnson showed self-awareness in his exit, and taught a valuable lesson in the process.