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He built team excellence on presence, oneness and creativity (plus MJ, Kobe and Shaq…).
Phil Jackson has won more NBA titles than any other head coach. He managed two of the game’s all-time greats in MJ and Kobe, as well as one of basketball’s most complex personalities in Dennis Rodman.
His famous triangle offense aside, Jackson puts his success down to how he helped team members cultivate resilient calmness and develop a deep sense of connection with one another. To improve their performance, he broadened his teams’ horizons and encouraged them to see things in fresh ways.
Jackson has more championship rings than he does fingers and thumbs. With his broad exposure to world spiritual traditions, he knew of Native American circles, Zen’s Enso, Taoism’s Yin/Yang icon and Ouroboros, the ancient mythological snake swallowing its own tail. These are also rings. He brought his teams to think of the ring as a symbol of something more precious than sporting victory.
On a psychological level, the ring symbolizes something profound: the quest of the self to find harmony, connection, and wholeness. (3)*
Jackson’s players held hands in a circle during pre-game pep talks, showing the importance of connection. This goes beyond friendship or the sense of shared purpose. In fact, the super-coach thinks the best word for it is love. For him, the love soldiers feel for their comrades epitomised genuine team spirit — the most important ingredient in his success.
It takes a number of critical factors to win an NBA championship, including the right mix of talent, creativity, intelligence, toughness, and, of course, luck. But if a team doesn’t have the most essential ingredient — love — none of those other factors matter. (4)
Through his own practice and by inviting guest instructors, he introduced his teams to meditation. He credits mindfulness for improved real-time presence in critical game moments. We all have noticed the difference when we’re properly absorbed in an activity versus neurotically narrating it in our heads as we do it. Imagine that edge in top-level competition.
The team’s meditation also fostered greater felt unity, that magical ingredient of oneness and flow. The love Jackson speaks of is, in a sense, each player recognising his interdependence with the others.
What I discovered after years of meditation practice is that when you immerse yourself fully in the moment, you start developing a much deeper awareness of what’s going on, right here, right now. And that awareness ultimately leads to a greater sense of oneness — the essence of teamwork. (100)
Jackson was a great fan of Maslow, whose hierarchy of needs culminated in the search for self-actualisation, becoming one’s fullest and best self. As a coach, he sought to improve his team members as players and as whole human beings. In describing those who reach Maslow’s pinnacle of personal development, Jackson underlines the importance of spontaneity and creativity, two necessities in the triangle offense.
The basic characteristics of self-actualizers, he (Maslow) discovered in his research, are spontaneity and naturalness, a greater acceptance of themselves and others, high levels of creativity, and a strong focus on problem solving rather than ego gratification. (123)
The NBA’s most successful coach drew on both psychology and spirituality in his leadership. Jackson touted no specific beliefs, but he invited his players to tap into a dimension of experience beyond the tunnel vision of success and its trappings, to question and broaden their perspectives.
My goal was to get the players to break free from their confining basketball cocoon and explore the deeper, more spiritual aspects of life. By “spiritual” I don’t mean “religious.” I mean the act of self-discovery that happens when you step beyond your routine way of seeing the world. (125)
But Jackson knew each must find his own path. He didn’t preach or demand ‘spiritual conformity’.
Like any great teacher, he also recognised the need to meet each student where that student was. He tailored his relationship with each player, bringing nuance to how he welcomed each into the culture he was building and into a journey of self-development.
Getting the players to turn inward wasn’t always easy. Not everyone on the Bulls was interested in “spiritual” realization. But I didn’t hit them over the head with it. (126)
Jackson’s reputation as a player with the Knicks was as a tough big man, and he no doubt had to access a powerful energy at times in his management. He was also known for tactical astuteness. Beyond grit and cleverness, though, his wisdom, drawing on varied ancient traditions and modern psychology, most set him apart as a leader. He was a teacher as well as a coach.
* All page references are to Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings, Ebury Publishing, Kindle Edition.