Saturday, April 21, 2018

Eleven Rings: Phil Jackson's Story Carries Lessons for Leaders and Laypeople Alike

"The sign of a great player is how much he elevates his colleagues' performance." 
--Phil Jackson

This week I finished reading Phil Jackson's Eleven Rings. I find inspiration in these books by or about successful leaders. There's almost always something to be gained, and the stories stick with you longer than a few stats.

An unexpected feature of Jackson's life story was how his leadership style is fully integrated with his spirituality. He grew up in the Pentecostal church, the son of two pastors. His mom happened to be the fire and brimstone preacher on Sunday evenings, his dad a bit less threatening. The burden of being forced to attend every service burned him out on the church but not on spirituality. Throughout the book he pulls insights from an eclectic mix of spiritual traditions from Buddhism to Native American. As he narrates his life story one sees that for Jackson the spiritual facet is inseparable from the success he achieved as a player and coach. It's a book about mindful leadership.

A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Living in the now.

Here are the eleven principles of what Jackson calls "mindful leadership."

1. Lead from the inside out.
Don't be a follower of what is trendy. Don't be a lemming. Follow your own inner vision.

2. Bench the ego.

3. Let each player discover his own destiny.
Don't force players to become what you think they should be. Let them be authentic to who they are.

4. The road to freedom is a beautiful system.

5. Turn the mundane into the sacred.

6. One breath = one mind.

7. The key to success is compassion.

8. Keep your eye on the spirit, not on the scoreboard.

9. Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick.

10. When in doubt, do nothing.

11. Forget the ring.

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Phil Jackson's leadership approach comes across as almost hokey at times. I've never seen a top tier pro coach utilize Eastern and Native mysticism in such an open and pronounced manner. One thing you can't argue with is the rings, and for Jackson it is apparent that his spiritual belief systems are an integral part of his coaching style. 11 championship rings gives a man the right to share his ideas. Here's a guy dealing with many of the biggest egos in sports, some of them still practically kids with multimillion-dollar salaries. Championships were important, but more important was helping each of his players mature into the best he could be as a person. In this manner, Jackson built truly great teams.

Caveat: If you've never been into pro basketball and are unfamiliar with the teams or players in the the NBA, the book might become tedious at times as he goes into detail about the big games his teams won or lost, and the challenges he faced in various situations. Nevertheless, even though I have only followed pro basketball superficially the past 30 years I found the book engaging and the lessons valuable. Jackson makes an effort to have a payoff for readers with each story. It is not just a book for Lakers and Bulls groupies.

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Related Link
Five powerful books for business leaders.
Eleven Rings at

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