Magic Johnson has been surrounded in rumors on why he recently left his post as Los Angeles Lakers president (and why he did so in an abrupt surprise announcement). The basketball legend appeared on ESPN's First Take this week to, for the first time, open up about what really happened and why he so suddenly quit the storied organization.
He certainly didn't hold back.
The basketball legend detailed a remarkably toxic culture. He pinpointed that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka had been backstabbing him, talking within the Lakers office (and even in circles outside the organization) that Johnson wasn't working hard enough in the job and wasn't in the office enough. Johnson called it an outright betrayal.
But there's more.
Johnson also said that he no longer had the power to make decisions as president. He reported directly to controlling owner Jeanie Buss but found that Lakers president of business operations, Tim Harris, as well as Buss' brothers were getting far too involved in decisions.
Johnson also noted that the owner kept changing her mind on giving final approval to key decisions. For example, Johnson wanted to fire head coach Luke Walton. He was told no in his first meeting with Buss, then yes, then no again, and then she brought in some of the aforementioned executives who had their own point of view. All on a decision Johnson had every right to make on his own. The exasperated ex-Laker-executive told First Take that this was "the straw that broke the camel's back."
So if this is true, Johnson was operating in a three-ring circle of toxicity, with general manager Rob Pelinka as the ringmaster.
In fairness, the Lakers ownership must not see Pelinka as chief contributor to a toxic culture. Instead of firing him, they announced that he'll maintain his role and report directly to the owner.
So the Lakers made their move, now I'll make my mine. Here are Johnson's reasons for leaving and why they may allude to a toxic culture in that organization.
1. There's backstabbing at the highest levels.
On this offense alone you can't blame Johnson for hitting the eject button. Not only was his work "partner" Pelinka backstabbing him, Johnson explained it was done for his personal gain, saying of Pelinka, "I wasn't having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I got to work beside you, knowing that you want my position."
If Pelinka had issues with Johnson's work ethic and lack of face time in the office, he should have told him so.
And about that face time thing. It's about performance, not presence, especially in today's remote work world. I've experienced this in corporate life, managers who valued face time way too much. It created an office full of people worried about being seen enough instead of focusing on beating competition. Toxic with a capital "T."
2. A lack of empowerment.
Johnson clearly did not have decision rights and room to operate, and was dealing with an inordinate amount of cooks in the kitchen. Johnson also shared that Jeanie Buss listens too much to close friends Linda Rambis (executive director of special projects) and former Lakers head coach and ex- fiancé, Phil Jackson.
We find meaning in our jobs when we have room to maneuver and make decisions. With autonomy, we're better able to use our unique strengths and talents to accomplish tasks, a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. The opposite, micromanagement, lack of role clarity, and unclear decision-making authority makes our work feel utterly meaningless. As in, what's the point?
Absolutely no one loves to be micromanaged. Absolutely no one should stand for it. Johnson didn't.
3. Too much indecision.
Could Johnson fire head coach Walton or couldn't he? Indecision can paralyze an organization. It can create doubt, confusion, lack of focus, uncertainty, even resentment. It can gobble up an organization's precious resources, draining energy and killing a sense of completion.
Indecision smacks of insecurity and a lack of discipline. Johnson should have been allowed to fire the head coach if he wanted to, with only one person to align and debate, decide, commit with.
Learn from the Lakers and don't try to execute the three-point play detailed above. Do the exact opposite. And maybe you won't lose a star player or two as well.