While I am not normally drawn to sports memoirs, I recently picked up Phil Jackson’s book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, and to my surprise, found I could not put it down. With eleven championship titles to his name, there is no disputing his achievement in the world of professional basketball. He is widely hailed as the greatest coach in NBA history, and few would disagree with that appraisal.
Granted, he also had some pretty good players at his disposal – Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe, Shaq – but he was also something an outlier in the macho world of men’s competitive sports where big personalities and outsize egos are not in short supply. Surprisingly, his personality and unique coaching style was more “Zen Master” than drill sergeant. But he possessed an almost uncanny ability to bring out the very best in his teams and his players.
As a coach myself, someone who often works with “high-performing teams,” I was intrigued by some of his insight into team dynamics and culture. His book tells a very personal story, while also extrapolating from it some of the lessons in leadership he has learned along the way. According to Jackson, all high-performing teams, whether in sports or business, share certain characteristics that contribute to their overall success. Here are five of my key takeaways:
1) Shared Vision
High-performing teams all have a clear understanding of the game and a well-defined vision for the way they want to play it. You see this in all winning teams, regardless of the sport. Whether it’s the L.A. Lakers, the All Blacks or Manchester United – each of these teams has a very clear idea of how they want to play, and a set of goals that provide direction and purpose. There is a collective understanding of what it is they are striving to achieve. Providing this vision, and getting others to buy into it, is really what good leadership is all about.
2) Surrendering Me to the We
Perhaps the greatest achievement of someone like Phil Jackson is in getting individual superstars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to even buy into the team concept in the first place. But his leadership style emphasized the collective effort over brilliant individualism. To him, the idea of “team” is sacrosanct. And nobody is above the team.
With his famous “one team, one breath” ritual, he brought a touch of Zen philosophy to the L.A. Lakers by encouraging them to practice mindfulness and meditation. He felt that players could develop a “group consciousness” that would help them work together more cohesively. By creating a culture of trust and mutual respect, he was able to build teams that consistently outperformed expectations. Says Jackson: “Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me to the We.”
3) Distribute Power
Rather than try to control his teams – the stereotypical “control freak” manager we are more used to seeing – Jackson encouraged his players to think for themselves and to trust in their own instincts. He wanted them to play with creativity and flair and without the fear of failure. To this end, he sought to discover and develop each player’s own inner leadership capability.
Jackson writes: “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority. The most effective approach is to delegate authority as much as possible and to nurture everyone else’s leadership skills as well. When I’m able to do that, it not only builds team unity and allows others to grow, but also –paradoxically – it strengthens my role as a leader.”
4) Continuous Learning and Growth
High-performing teams are committed to continuous learning and growth. Win, lose or draw, they seek out the “learnings” from each game, and look for opportunities to improve, adapt to changes, and never rest on their laurels. According to Jackson, there is no such thing as a “winning formula” – and even if there was, what worked in the past may not work in the future, or against different opposition.
There is only the continual work of steady improvement and iteration. And this involves listening, learning, being open and humble enough to receive feedback. Instead of always seeking to “win” – maybe we should be looking for ways to evolve.
In life, as in sport, there are setbacks and unexpected obstacles along the way. The conditions are never perfect; no one is every injury free. But what all championship teams exhibit is resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity. They tend not to panic when the chips are down, because they know that things don’t always go your way. In fact, they expect it.
Accordingly, we should not be too perturbed by either “winning” or “losing” in the moment. Neither outcome will ever fully define us.
As Jackson says: “In basketball, as in life, true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it’s no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose, and focus your full attention on what’s happening right in this moment.”
So maybe we should stop worrying. And just play the game instead.