Phil Jackson’s secrets to success

Business tips from the basketball court

Like many people, I’m fairly level-headed in “real life” and prone to overheated opinions, petty grudges and ruthless schadenfreude in my “sports fan life.” In both of those lives, I believe in learning what you can from one’s competitors and enemies – while plotting to crush them, of course, or at least yell at your TV about them.

That brings me to Phil Jackson. His new book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, charts his course from sheltered North Dakotan kid to arguably the greatest pro basketball coach of all time (the title references the 11 championships he’s won as a coach – six in Chicago, five in L.A. with the team I love to hate). He’s renowned as a strategist and earned the nickname “Zen Master” for incorporating meditation, Eastern philosophy and Native American parables into his game plans and pep talks.

Perhaps most of all, he’s famous for getting egomaniacal superstars like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to buy into a more team-oriented and collaborative approach to basketball. There’s obviously a lot of philosophical overlap between the hyper-competitive arenas of business and sport. Eleven Rings applies almost as much to the conference room as it does to the gym; I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who actively dislikes basketball, but NBA junkie status is not at all a prerequisite. Jackson and co-author Hugh Delehanty seem to consciously court the TED crowd as much as the SportsCenter crowd.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from Eleven Rings relating to collaboration and leadership. I chose six – one for each championship the author won with the Bulls (and then I promptly tried to forget the ones he won with the Lakers).

Winning never gets boring.

Jackson’s trips to the NBA Finals became so predictable that his family basically started planning annual reunions around them (ugh, I know). The challenges – both internal and external – were fresh every season; when the competition wasn’t quite stiff enough, they competed against themselves (and made history in the process). In your business, some of your stars will come and go; some of your competitors probably will, too. If you seized market share as a feisty startup, it will feel different when you’re defending that turf as an established player. The thrill is the next chase more than the last conquest; just ask a serial entrepreneur.

But don’t get fixated on the end result. “Obsessing about winning is a loser’s game,” Jackson writes. “The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go out of the outcome.”

Hit the books.

Of all Jackson’s NBA-anachronisms, my favorite was his habit of making personalized reading recommendations to his players during long road trips, especially when he opted for less-obvious choices than Siddhartha – like giving the relentlessly self-absorbed Kobe Bryant a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. For one not-so-literary player, Jackson’s recommendation was a Beavis and Butt-Head book. Sometimes players reported major revelations; other times they shrugged it off. Either way, Jackson hoped they appreciated the gesture: I chose this for you. The lesson for managers: you should know your team well enough to not assume they’re all into the same things. The lesson for everyone else, as always: books are your friends. And if you’re looking for business inspiration, you don’t have to stick to the business section.

Give lots of pasture to your cows.

Give people room to roam – which means granting room to fail. Focus on the shared collaborative goal over the individual paths taken to reach that goal. Give yourself room to roam, too; Jackson references studies that suggest we often do our best thinking when we aren’t at our desks – or even consciously thinking about work. Einstein, after all, hashed out that whole e = mc² thing while riding his bicycle. “When in doubt, do nothing,” Jackson writes, poking fun at his Zen reputation.

Anger should be channeled, not suppressed.

You and your company presumably love employees and job candidates who demonstrate passion. Passion, alas, is history’s most famous double-edged sword; etymologically, its roots run straight back to suffering. When passionate people really commit to common goal, there will be some friction – and not only in times of adversity (“success turns we’s into me’s,” as Michael Jordan points out). Jackson says that Western culture, in particular, tends to brand anger as a sign of weakness when instead, if handled constructively, it can play a pivotal role in high-stakes collaboration. Some businesses shrink away not just from anger but from disagreements altogether, which led to an earlier defense of office skeptics. This isn’t, by the way, encouragement for you to uncork a Christian Bale rant in your next budget meeting.

Don’t always wait for people to resolve their own conflicts.

Simmering tension left unresolved will eventually either spill over (bad) or bottle up (worse). Jackson details one case in which Bryant misinterpreted his coach’s hands-off approach – intended to be a respectful, “he’ll figure it out on his own” approach – as ambivalence. Try to encourage clearing the air as much as possible. You don’t have to be in the C-suite to run lead on these rescue operations; in the NBA, it’s often a respected role player who plays intermediary when things fall apart.

Search for “mysterious alchemy.”

Jackson loves the idea of individuals throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the pursuit of the greater good. Sometimes this clicked with his teams, sometimes it didn’t. You can get a sense pretty quickly of whether your group – whether a business department or a basketball team – has what the Grateful Dead-loving Zen Master calls the “mysterious alchemy” that’s necessary for conquering the impossible. Spotting (and appreciating) this alchemy gets much easier with age and experience. If you’re stuck in an alchemy-free situation, try to fix it – or prep an escape plan. You’re not going to be in the game forever.

Adam McKibbin
Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.

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