NBA: 11 Lessons Every Player Needs to Take From Phil Jackson
Management and leadership advice comes in a host of forms. Conferences, seminars, articles written by CEOs and other corporate executives all detail the path to achieving cohesion in the workplace, or how to be a stronger leader. But the leaders of the boardroom aren’t the only people who know a thing or two about managing difficult personalities, or how to exercise authority.
Retired NBA coach and player Phil Jackson released Eleven Rings in May 2013. The book is a memoir about his values, leadership style, and other factors that contributed to his unprecedented eleven NBA championship rings as a coach. Jackson enumerates the 11 principles that assisted his career, and why they are important for everyday life — not just court-side coaching.
1. Lead from the inside-out
When you lead from the outside-in, Jackson says, you may have short-term success, but it can’t last. No one wants to be repeatedly “brow-beaten,” and your opponents will eventually discover your game plan. “As time went by, I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more players could hear me and benefit from what I gleaned.”
2. Bench the ego
“Some coaches insist on having the last word, but I always tried to foster an environment in which everyone played a leadership role — from the most unschooled rookie to the veteran superstar. If your primary objective is to bring the team into a state of harmony and oneness, it doesn’t make sense for you to rigidly impose your authority.”
Jackson says he came to this conclusion after trial-and-error with imposing his will. He realized he needed “to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority.”
3. Let each player discover his own destiny
For Jackson, this was as much about letting players find who they are, but also helping to draw them out as well. By working with players to discover their individual talents, he made them assets to the whole team.
“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.”
4. The road to freedom is a beautiful system
As a coach, Jackson used the triangle offense. In this offensive-play system, all five players need to be cooperating, passing, and moving in order to stretch the defense and open up the court for plays. “What attracted me to the triangle was the way it empowers the players, offering each one a vital role to play as well as a high level of creativity within a clear, well-defined structure.” For the strategy to work, Jackson says that, “All five players must be fully engaged every second — or the whole system will fail”
5. Turn the mundane into the sacred
“As I see it, my job as coach was to make something meaningful out of one of the most mundane activities on the planet: Playing pro basketball.” Jackson admits there is “glamour” to the life of a professional basketball player, but the actual process — the constant traveling and games can be “soul-numbing.” To combat this, Jackson’s players frequently meditated. “I wanted to give players something besides X’s and O’s to focus on. What’s more, we often invented rituals of our own to infuse practices with a sense of the sacred.”
6. One breath = one mind
Building on the concept of meditation, Jackson “discovered that when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.” Through rituals and techniques, he created mindfulness for his teams so they could better connect with one another, preparing them for the teamwork needed on the court.
It also helped free players from needless constraints. “If you place too many restrictions on players, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to buck the system. Like all of us, they need a certain degree of structure in their lives, but they also require enough latitude to express themselves creatively.”
7. The key to success is compassion
“Now, ‘compassion’ is not a word often bandied about in locker rooms. But I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men in the room.”
To illustrate his point, Jackson gives the example of Michael Jordan returning to the Bulls after his brief stint with minor league baseball in the 1990s. Jordan was disconnected from the team, but it took a fight between Jordan and Steve Kerr for Jackson to realize the extent. By having the players get to know and understand each other, Jackson opened up compassion on his team, that enabled them to heighten their level of play.
8. Keep your eye on the spirit, not on the scoreboard
“Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way.” In emphasizing the player, not the score, Jackson is returning to the ideals behind his fourth point, and the triangle offense. The team working together was the most important aspect, all needed to work to be one part moving toward the same goal.
“When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athlete most fully manifest.” Jackson wanted team players, not just in actions on the court, but in their off-court characteristics as well.
9. Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick
In terms of coaching, Jackson gave players leeway and chances to express themselves, but occasionally, he used what he referred to as “tricks” meant “to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness.” Jackson was trying to teach his players how to react to unplanned and uncontrollable events.
“Once I had the Bulls practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. I like to shake things up and keep the players guessing. Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.”
10. When in doubt, do nothing
Not every problem can be tackled with multitudes of energy, and a can-do spirit according to Jackson. “Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something — anything — to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.”
11. Forget the ring
It isn’t always about winning, even in a sport, or field that emphasizes records and results.”I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.”
Jackson admits that personally, he hates losing, but he knew that it was of greater importance to emphasize “the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players.”