10 Lessons in Zen Leadership Practiced by Legendary Coach Phil Jackson

zen leadership

What makes a good leader whether it’s a boss, or a coach, or a parent? Typically we imagine a leader as someone who stands strong, demands our attention and respect, and perhaps even sparks a little intimidation or fear.

This “alpha model” of leadership can be very effective, but it’s not the only form of leadership. In fact, more and more we are learning about more subtle and nurturing forms of leadership.

Mindful leadership (or Zen leadership) has become an increasingly popular topic, and no one embodies it more than the legendary basketball coach and player Phil Jackson. who won 6 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls (led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen), and and 5 NBA championships with the L.A. Lakers (led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil).

Phil Jackson is one of the most successful coaches not just in basketball, but in all of sports. In his book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, he recollects on his time coaching these legendary teams and what he learned as a leader.

In the basketball world, Phil Jackson is often referred to as the “zen master,” because he often integrates meditation, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions into his coaching practice.

According to Jackson, the key to building a strong team (or any cohesive tribe or group) is being able to overcome multiple egos and have everyone work together for a singular purpose or goal.

You need to elevate the desire for “individual achievement” (scoring a lot of points, getting to the All-Star game) to the desire for “group achievement” (performing well as a team, winning championships).

No one knows better how to manage multiple egos and build championship teams than Phil Jackson. In this article, I explore the various lessons behind his “zen leadership” approach and how we can apply it to our own lives.

One Breath, One Mind

Growing up in a family of Christian ministers, Phil Jackson had always been a deeply spiritual person. While he eventually moved away from organized religion, he still pursued his own personal practice including learning about Buddhism and meditation.

Since working with the Bulls in the late 1980s, Jackson has always encouraged his players to practice meditation, even if it’s only for 5-10 minutes before or after practice. According to Jackson, meditation is very beneficial for the game of basketball:

    “Though mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism, it’s an easily accessible technique for quieting the restless mind and focusing attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. This is extremely useful for basketball players, who often have to make split-second decisions under enormous pressure. I discovered that when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.”

This “One Breath, One Mind” meditation that Jackson describes here is particularly interesting.

When players meditate together in unison – each breathing in and out together – it helps cultivate a type of “group consciousness” and a feeling of interconnectedness with each other. It provides the experience of what it’s like to be in unison and in sync.

Good teams always learn how to work cohesively as a group, because often “the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.” This meditation practice is useful for getting players to become a singular whole from a mental standpoint.

Understanding Different Roles

It takes more than just raw talent and superstar players to build a championship team. What can often be just as important is the relationship between the players and if they work together in harmony.

To illustrate this point, Jackson reflects on a story about the Chinese emperor Liu Bang. A citizen asks a Zen monk why is it that Liu Bang is considered a powerful leader if all of his advisers are smarter and stronger than he is?

The Zen monk replies:

    “‘Why is it that two wheels made of identical spokes differ in strength?’ asked the master. ‘See beyond what is seen. Never forget that the wheel is made not only of spokes, but also of the space between the spokes. Sturdy spokes poorly placed make a weak wheel. Whether their full potential is realized depends on the harmony between them. The essence of wheel-making lies in the craftman’s ability to conceive and create the space that holds and balances the spokes within the wheel.'”

The lesson is that a good leader doesn’t just have strong players, but also knows where to place those strong players so that they work together and bring out the best in one another.

Often throughout Jackson’s career as a coach, he had to change the roles of players to fit the needs of the team. Initially, Kobe Bryant – despite his massive success – didn’t have the experience to be a co-captain on the team, even though he really wanted to be one.

A good coach recognizes what each individual player contributes and how it fits into the bigger system. Great coaches bring out the best in other players by giving them the proper space to unleash their natural abilities.

Sharing Authority and Not Being a “Control Freak”

One big way Jackson differentiates himself from the typical “alpha” leader is that he knows when to let go of his authority and share it with other members of the group.

Most leaders get drunk on their power and become “control freaks” – wanting to micromanage every little decision – but Jackson realized he is actually a better leader when he is comfortable delegating his authority to others:

    “Needless to say, the coaching profession attracts a lot of control freaks who remind everyone constantly that they’re the alpha dog in the room. I’ve been known to do this myself. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the most effective approach is to delegate authority as much as possible and 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 a leader.”

By cultivating every player’s inner leader (and allowing them some degree of control and power), players are more likely to reach their full potential.

Even the best leader doesn’t always know how to best manage every decision for every person. Being able to relinquish your power and put it in the hands of your teammates can be a powerful way to foster everyone’s growth organically.

And paradoxically, like Jackson points out, by allowing everyone to be a leader in certain situations, it actually strengthens his overall leadership ability. A great leader cultivates many “good leaders” throughout their organization.

Treating Wins and Losses the Same

In two decades of coaching, Phil Jackson has the highest winning percentage in basketball history (.704) and won a record-breaking 11 championship rings. He also won 2 championship rings as a player with the New York Knicks.

Yet despite all of this winning, there were plenty of painful losses and disappointments as well. Teams would go on “hot streaks” and “cold streaks,” and there were more than enough devastating losses in big playoff games.

One lesson Jackson has learned is that you need to stay level wether you win or lose, and not let any single win or loss define you as a person (even if it’s losing Game 7 in the finals to the Celtics).

Reflecting on his time as a player, Jackson remembered a funny but inspiring story from one of his teammates after they ended a long winning streak:

    “Early in the 1969-70 season, we went on an eighteen-game winning streak and pulled away from the rest of the pack. When the streak ended with a disappointing loss at home, reporters asked Red what he would have done if the Knicks had won, and he replied, ‘I’d go home, drink a scotch, and eat the great meal that [his wife] Selma is cooking.” And what would he do now that we had lost? ‘Go home, drink a scotch, and ear the great meal Selma is cooking.'”

This nonchalant response perfectly shows the proper attitude to have during any win or loss. It’s important to not get “too high” when you win or “too low” when you lose, because at the end of the day you have to still keep living and keep grinding.

Of course, winning feels great and losing feels like crap, but those feelings are only temporary anyway. They don’t change the bigger picture.

The Importance of Pregame Rituals

Today almost every professional sports team takes part in some type of “pregame ritual,” even if it’s just a quick pep talk before the game, or blasting the team’s favorite song in the locker room as they get ready.

Phil Jackson used the power of the pregame ritual to great effect. He was always showing the team clips from his favorite movies and songs to help get them pumped and in the right mindset. Some of his favorite artists to share were Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Talking Heads, Queen, and John Coltrane.

Here he reflects on why “pregame rituals” are so important in getting the team ready for battle:

    “Another lesson I learned was about the importance of pregame rituals. The shootaround had yet to be invented, so most coaches tried to squeeze in whatever pregame instructions they had during the fifteen or twenty minutes before the players stepped on the floor. But there’s only so much a player can absorb when his body is pulsing with adrenaline. This is not a good time for deep left-brain discussions. It’s the moment to calm the player’s minds and strengthen their spiritual connection with one another before they head into battle.”

In general, rituals are great for fostering group-bonding and preparing a team mentally and emotionally to complete their mission. This is why rituals are also used throughout many religions and spiritual traditions to help create a sense of community and belonging.

zen leadership

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success is a fantastic book by the legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson, who is most known for leading the Chicago Bulls to 6 NBA championships and the L.A. Lakers to 5 NBA championships. He reflects on these wild times and how his “zen leadership” approach contributed to this record-breaking success.

Pulling Out the “Big Stick”

While it’s true that Phil Jackson’s zen leadership can be described as a more subtle and “hands-off” approach compared to other leadership styles, this doesn’t mean Jackson didn’t know how to be forceful when it was necessary.

If a leader senses that their team is becoming lazy or complacent, it might be necessary to “shake things up” to help keep people alert and focused.

Here Jackson compares this lesson to the Zen master’s use of a stick to keep their students awake during meditation:

    “Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick. In the strictest form of Zen, monitors roam the meditation hall, striking sleeping or listless meditators with a flat wooden stick, called a keisaku, to get them to pay attention. This is not intended as punishment. In fact, the keisaku is sometimes referred to as the ‘compassionate stick.’ The purpose of the blow is to reinvigorate the meditator and make him or her more awake in the moment. I haven’t wielded a keisaku stick in practice, though there were many times I wished I’d had one handy. Still, I’ve pulled out some other tricks to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness. Once I had the Bulls practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. I like to shake things up and keep the players guessing. Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.”

Some of Jackson’s tactics in this regard seem like pranking or teasing (what good can come from having players practice in the dark?), but often he knew what he was doing and he knew how to keep players on their toes so they never got too comfortable.

Using Symbols and Spirituality

While Jackson was raised Christian, and later discovered a lot of Buddhism and Zen philosophy, he was also highly influenced by Native American spiritual traditions, especially the Lakotas who had a reservation by his hometown in Montana.

He integrated some of the Lakota traditions into the locker room, as he describes below:

    “Another Lakota practice I adopted was beating a drum when I wanted the players to congregate in the tribal room for a meeting. The tribal room – aka the video room – was decorated with several Indian totems I’d been given over the years: a bear-claw necklace (for power and wisdom), the middle feather of an owl (for balance and harmony), a painting illustrating the story of Crazy Horse’s journey, and photos of a newborn white buffalo calf, a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. Sometimes when the team lost a particularly lopsided game, I’d light a sage smudge stick – a Lakota tradition – and playfully wave it through the air to purify the locker room. The first time I did it, the players ribbed me: ‘What kind of weed you smokin’ there, Phil?'”

Who knows what type of effect this had on the players, if any, but in general the use of meaningful symbols can play an important role in cultivating group-bonding and team spirit.

I especially like the use of the “sage stick” after a big loss, as smell can be a powerful sense and the use of this symbol probably plays a psychological effect on helping the players “let go” of their loss and start again on a clean slate.

I’ve written before about the power of rituals (in relation to athletes), and how studies have shown they can help diminish stress and boost confidence.

Encouraging New Experiences

Another thing I found interesting about Phil Jackson’s approach to coaching is that he was always deliberating thinking “outside the box,” and he tried his best to transfer this type of thinking to his own players.

He encouraged his players to always be learning new things, experiencing new things, and expanding themselves not just as basketball players, but as human beings.

Every year he would buy a book for each individual player on the team. Not only was it a kind gesture, but often Jackson recommended specific books that he thought would help specific players.

One year he gave Shaq a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, a fictional account of the Buddha’s life where he gives up all of his possessions, to help Shaq with his materialistic tendencies.

Another way Jackson encouraged “outside the box” thinking was by having guest lecturers come in to speak to his teams:

    “Another way I pushed the envelope was to have experts come in and teach the players yoga, tai chi, and other mind-body techniques. I also invited guest speakers – including a nutritionist, an undercover detective, and a prison ward – to show them new ways of thinking about difficult problems. Sometimes when we were traveling short distances – between Houston and San Antonio, for instance – we’d load everybody onto a bus to give them a chance to see what the world looked like beyond the airport waiting rooms.”

While these activities may not be directly related to basketball, they can be very mind-expansive. Phil Jackson didn’t just see his players as cogs in a basketball machine, but human beings who deserved to experience their lives to the fullest.

The Enemy’s Gift

When you are in a competitive sport like basketball, it’s not hard for certain rivalries to pop-up and you begin to think of other teams as the “enemy.”

In 2008, when the Lakers lost against the Celtics in the finals in Boston, fans let them have it – rioting outside of the Lakers bus and even trying to flip it over. The pain of the loss was enough, but the fans rubbing it in made things even worse.

Good teams use their “enemies” as fuel to strive harder and go further. On a strange level, they see their enemies as a gift, because they help bring out the best in you.

    “The Dalai Lama calls it ‘the enemy’s gift.’ From a Buddhist perspective, battling with enemies can help you develop greater compassion for and tolerance of others. ‘In order to practice sincerely and develop patience,’ he says, ‘you need someone who willfully hurts you. Thus, these people give us real opportunities to practice these things. They are testing our inner strength in a way that even our guru cannot.”

Enemies give us the opportunity to better ourselves. While we may not typically think of people in our lives as “enemies,” you can see how this perspective applies to any person in your life who gives you difficulty.

Stop Trying to Chase a “Winning Formula”

When you start getting a taste of success, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just doing more of whatever you did before.

But Phil Jackson knows better. He’s won 3 NBA championships in a row twice, and as Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success wonderfully illustrates, every year is faced with completely new challenges, new situations, and new people.

Therefore, success isn’t only about repeating what’s worked in the past, it’s about being able to continuously adapt and never stop evolving in the face of a world that’s always changing:

    “The mistake that championship teams often make is to try to repeat their winning formula. But that rarely works because by the time the next season starts, your opponents have studied all the videos and figured out how to counter every move you made. 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. It’s an act of controlled improvisation, a Thelonious Monk finger exercise, from one moment to the next.”

There is no such thing as a “winning formula,” because the world is always changing and what led to your success in the past isn’t necessarily what is going to lead to your success in the future. You need to be willing to change and evolve with the times.

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