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25 Leadership Lessons from Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson

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I read this book when it was first published in 2013, and decided to read it again as I watched ESPN’s excellent documentary The Last Dance. I read the book this time specifically to examine Jackson’s leadership as he won eleven NBA Championships (rings) as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and see what I could learn.

Jackson doesn’t pretend to be an expert in leadership theory. But what he does know is that “the art of transforming a group of young, ambitious individuals into an integrated championship team is not a mechanistic process. It’s a mysterious juggling act that requires not only a thorough knowledge of the time-honored laws of the game but also an open heart, a clear mind, and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit.” The book is about his journey to try to unravel that mystery.

Here are some of my favorite leadership lessons from the book:

  1. What moves me is watching young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus—with their whole heart and soul—on something greater than themselves.
  2. With leadership, as with most things in life, the best approach is always the simplest.
  3. 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. Paradoxically, this approach strengthened my effectiveness because it freed me to focus on my job as keeper of the team’s vision.
  4. One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.
  5. The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way.
  6. Playing for New York during the championship years was like going to grad school in leadership. The man who taught me the most about leadership was the most unassuming of them all: Red Holzman. Red’s singular gift was his uncanny ability to manage grown men and get them to come together with a common mission.
  7. The system (triangle offense) also gave players a clear purpose as a group and established a high standard of performance for everyone. Even more important, it helped turn players into leaders as they began teaching one another how to master the system. When that happened, the group would bond together in ways that moments of individual glory, no matter how thrilling, could never foster.
  8. What I’ve learned over the years is that 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—strengthens my role as leader.
  9. I encouraged everyone to take part in the discussion—coaches and players alike—to stimulate creativity and set a tone of inclusiveness.
  10. When I’m hiring coaches, my strategy is to surround myself with the strongest, most knowledgeable people I can find and give them a lot of room to express themselves.
  11. My goal has always been to foster an environment where the players can grow as individuals and express themselves creatively within a team structure.
  12. I tried to develop genuine, caring relationships with each player, based on mutual respect, compassion, and trust.
  13. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.
  14. Though Jerry (Krause) and I agreed on most basketball-related issues, we had opposing views on how to manage people. I tried to be as open and transparent as possible; Jerry tended to be closed and secretive.
  15. A team leader’s number one job, I explained, was to build up his teammates, not tear them down.
  16. I also talked to Kobe (Bryant) about what it takes to be a leader. At one point I told him, “I guess you’d like to be the captain of this team someday when you’re older—maybe like twenty-five.” He replied that he wanted to be captain tomorrow. To which I said, “You can’t be captain if nobody follows you.”
  17. With the Lakers I found that I had to be a model of calmness and patience, much more so than with the Bulls.
  18. The key to sustained success is to keep growing as a team. Winning is about moving into the unknown and creating something new. Remember that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie when someone asks Indy what he’s going to do next, and he replies, “I don’t know, I’m making it up as we go along.” That’s how I view leadership.
  19. One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael’s (Jordan) superior skills as a leader. Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Once he bought into the triangle, he knew instinctively how to get the players on board to make it work.
  20. When he returned to the Lakers, Fish (Derek Fisher) quickly realized that he and Kobe had to adopt a different style of leadership from the one that had worked for us during our first run. There were no other championship veterans on this team, no Ron Harpers or John Salleys or Horace Grants. So, Fish realized that if they wanted to get through to our roster of young, inexperienced players, he and Kobe would have to put themselves in their shoes. “We couldn’t lead this team from 10,000 feet,” he says now. “We had to come back to sea level and try to grow with our guys. And as that process took place, we started to feel a real connectivity and brotherhood.”
  21. Some players require a gentle touch, while others, such as Luke (Walton), need something more provocative to wake them up.
  22. Another player who evolved into a more integrated player during this period was Kobe. Ever since Fish had returned, he’d been developing a more inclusive style of leadership that came to fruition during the 2008–09 season. He embraced the team and his teammates, calling them up when we were on the road and inviting them out to dinner. It was as if the other players were now his partners, not his personal spear-carriers.
  23. The most gratifying thing of all was watching Kobe transform from a selfish, demanding player into a leader that his teammates wanted to follow. To get there, Kobe had to learn to give in order to get back in return. Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.
  24. Kobe likes to say that he learned 90 percent of what he knows about leadership from watching me in action. “It’s not just a basketball way of leadership,” he says, “but a philosophy of how to live. Being present and enjoying each moment as it comes.
  25. Winning a championship is a delicate balancing act, and there’s only so much you can accomplish by exerting your will. As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way.

Author: Bill Pence

I’m Bill Pence – married to my best friend Tammy, a graduate of Covenant Seminary, St. Louis Cardinals fan, formerly a manager at a Fortune 50 organization, and in leadership at my local church. I am a life-long learner and have a passion to help people develop, and to use their strengths to their fullest potential. I am an INTJ on Myers-Briggs, 3 on the Enneagram, my top five Strengthsfinder themes are: Belief, Responsibility, Learner, Harmony, and Achiever, and my two StandOut strength roles are Creator and Equalizer. My favorite book is the Bible, with Romans my favorite book of the Bible, and Colossians 3:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 being my favorite verses. Some of my other favorite books are The Holiness of God and Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. I enjoy music in a variety of genres, including modern hymns, Christian hip-hop and classic rock. My book Called to Lead: Living and Leading for Jesus in the Workplace and Tammy’s book Study, Savor and Share Scripture: Becoming What We Behold are available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.

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