The Tao of Great Leadership

Much has been made of NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson’s 11 championships, six with the Chicago Bulls and five more with the Los Angeles Lakers. But even Jackson’s most ardent fans concede that he won those titles with what amounted at the time to the best players in the league – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille Oneal.

Yet others point out that what Jackson accomplished was nothing less than superhuman. Imagine it: being tasked with leading a dozen men, virtually all of whom are multimillionaires and few beyond their 20s, to practice and play together day in and day out as a single-minded unit. It could be argued that having the best players also made Jackson’s accomplishment that much more difficult, since in lesser hands those same superstars may have forced their own styles upon their teams.

Indeed, it wasn’t until Jackson arrived in Chicago that Jordan began winning titles. Without Jackson it is unlikely the squabbling Bryant and Oneal would have set aside their egos in pursuit of a team championship.

How did Jackson, who this spring retired from coaching, succeed where so many others failed? Jackson brought a holistic approach to coaching, reminding his players in ways large and small that the team came first – always. But he took it a step farther, pointing out that life itself was more important, that at the end of the day they were still just playing a game. This philosophy was credited with helping his teams keep their cool when others unraveled under championship-level pressures.

Jackson also was big on delegating authority, recognizing this his role was as strategist and chief tactician who depended on his field generals to execute his vision. Jordan, for example, was unquestionably the best player on the planet, but to win a championship Jackson convinced him that he needed to elevate the games of those around him. He accomplished the same goal with Bryant and Oneal, in essence balancing the interests of the two superstars to bring titles to the Lakers.

Nicknamed the “Zen Master” by many of his players and fans, Jackson was fond of using Eastern mysticism and Native American spirituality in his coaching practices, one season asking each of his players to read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Wisdom, Jackson once said, always wins against raw strength.

The lessons Jackson was fond of imparting on other aspiring leaders?

1. Don’t show up with a preset agenda – a flexibility to changing conditions is important to success since life rarely accommodates our requirements. If the team is shooting poorly from outside, you need a plan for pushing the ball deeper into the paint. Business is no different.

2. Give the business your heart and mind but keep your soul, which is to say, if you let the business consume you you are no good to anyone.

3. Determination, dedication, and discipline are the keys to any successful professional endeavor.

And lastly, “If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball.”




About Curt Buermeyer

I am the founder and president of LeadPeople. I hope you enjoyed this post and encourage you to subscribe to receive these in your inbox. Thanks for visiting!

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