Phil Jackson had a set of leadership principles he calls the “Eleven Rings.”
Starting with the fact that his style undercounts the amount of championship rings he actually has (2 as a player, 11 as a coach), Jackson’s rules embody a different kind of leadership. It is far more Eastern than Western, more mindful than master.
Unorthodox? Yes. But you cannot argue that they haven’t been immensely successful. And anyone who argues that Jackson was unfairly granted the sport’s most talented players has never actually dealt with talented people. With that blessing comes a curse–a curse of ego, habit, suspicion and self-interest.
Jackson developed a leadership approach designed to transform chaos and ego into a powerful, fluid machine with a mission. One that works not only with different types of players and teams (from the summer leagues of Puerto Rico to Chicago and Los Angeles) but situations that far transcend the basketball court.
We would all be better relying on persuasion rather than force, to build sacredness and spirituality into our cause, to learn to operate as one, to focus on the process rather than the outcome. As aspiring leaders, we’re often caught up with the notion that we have to do everything, all the time. But this is really a weakness that can be counterproductive.
What Jackson shows us is how to be in control without obsessing about control. He shows us how to lead without one-upmanship and how to win without tying our identity to it. They are simple, but infinitely applicable.
They will change your life and your business.
I’m excerpting his principles below because I think they are some of the greatest ever written (edited only for length). They can be read in full, along with a ton of other amazing wisdom in his book Eleven Rings.
Some coaches love to run with the lemmings. They spend an inordinate amount of time studying what other coaches are doing and trying out every flashy new technique to get an edge over their opponents. That kind of outside-in strategy might work in the short term if you have a forceful, charismatic personality, but it inevitably backfires when the players grow weary of being browbeaten and tune out or, even more likely, your opponents wise up and figure out a clever way to counter your latest move.
As an adult, I’ve tried to break free from that early conditioning and develop more open-minded, personally meaningful way of being in the world. In my quest to come to terms with my own spiritual yearning, I experimented with a wide range of ideas and practices, from Christian mysticism to Zen meditation and Native American rituals. Eventually, I arrived at a synthesis that felt authentic to me. And though at first I worried that my players might find my unorthodox views a little wacky, as time went by I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more the players could hear me and benefit from what I’d gleaned.
After years of experimenting, 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. If your primary objective is to bring the team into a state of harmony and oneness, it doesn’t make sense for you to rigidly impose your authority.
“I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle. The standard rule of thumb in the NBA is that you should call a time-out as soon as an opposing team goes on a 6-0 run. Much to my coaching staff’s dismay, I often let the clock keeping running at that point, so that the players would be forced to come up with a solution on their own. This not only built solidarity but also increased what Michael Jordan used to call the team’s collective ‘think power.’
My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just as a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire?
When I joined the Bulls in 1987 as an assistant coach, my colleague Tex Winter taught me a system, known as the triangle offense, that aligned perfectly with the values of selflessness and mindful awareness I’d been studying in Zen Buddhism.
What attracted me to the triangle was the way it empowers the players, offering each one a vital role to play as well as a high level of creativity within a clear, well-defined structure. They key is to train each player to read the defense and react appropriately. This allows the team to move together in a coordinated manner—depending on the action at any given moment. With the triangle you can’t stand around and wait for the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the world to work their magic. All five players must be fully engaged every second—or the whole system will fail. When the triangle is working right, it’s virtually impossible to stop it because nobody knows what’s going to happen next, not even the players themselves.
As I see it, my job as a coach was to make something meaningful out of one of the most mundane activities on the planet: playing pro basketball. Despite all the glamour surrounding the sport, the process of playing day after day in one city after another can be a soul-numbing exercise. That’s why I started incorporating meditation into practices. What’s more, we often invented rituals of our own to infuse practices with a sense of the sacred.
At the start of training camp, for instance, we used to perform a ritual that I borrowed from football great Vince Lombardi. As the players formed a row on the baseline, I’d ask them to commit to being coached that season, saying, “God has ordained me to coach young men, and I embrace the role I’ve been given. If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching, as a sign of your commitment, step across the line.” The essence of coaching is to get the players to wholeheartedly agree to being coached, then offer them a sense of their destiny as a team.
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 also 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.
Now, ‘compassion’ is a word not often bandied about in locker rooms. But I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men on the team.
I think it’s essential for athletes to learn to open their hearts so that they can collaborate with one another in a meaningful way. When Michael returned to the Bulls in 1995 after a year and a half of playing minor-league baseball, he didn’t know most of the players and he felt completely out of sync with the team. It wasn’t until he got into a fight with Steve Kerr at practice that he realized he needed to get to know his teammates more intimately. He had to understand what made them tick, so that he could work with them more productively. That moment of awakening helped Michael become a compassionate leader and ultimately helped transform the team into one of the greatest of all time.
When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athletic most fully manifest. Paradoxically, by playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential for the team that transcends his own limitations and helps his teammates transcend theirs. When this happens, the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Example: We had a player on the Lakers who loved to chase down balls on defense. If his mind was focused on scoring points at the other end of the floor instead of on making steals, he wouldn’t be able to perform either task very well. But when he committed himself to playing defense, his teammates covered for him on the other end, because they knew intuitively what he was going to do. Then, all of a sudden, everybody was able to hit their rhythm, and good things began to happen.
I haven’t wielded a keisaku stick (a Zen tool for slapping students) in practice, though there were times when I wished I’d had one handy. Still, I’ve pulled out some other tricks to wake up players 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. 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.
One of the players I came down especially hard on as Lakers forward Luke Walton. I sometimes played mind games with him so that he would know what it felt like to be stressed out under pressure. Once I put him through a particularly frustrating series of exercises, and I could tell by his reactions that I’d pushed him too far. Afterward I sat down with him and said, “ I know you’re thinking about becoming a coach someday. I think that’s a good idea, but coaching isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes no matter how nice a guy you are, you’re going to have to be an asshole. You can’t be a coach if you need to be liked.
Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something—anything—to solve problems. However there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.
This is especially true when the media is involved. The Los Angeles Times’s T.J. Simers wrote a funny column once about my propensity for inactivity and concluded wryly that “no one does nothing better than Phil.” I get the joke. But I’ve always been wary of asserting my ego frivolously just to give reporters something to write about.
That’s why I subscribe to the philosophy of the late Satchel Paige, who said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.
I hate losing. When I was a kid, I was so competitive I frequently burst into tears and broke the board into pieces if one of my older brothers, Charles or Joe, trounced me in a game. They loved teasing me when I threw a sore loser’s tantrum, which made me even more determined to win the next time. I’d practice and practice until I figured out a way to beat them and wipe the smug smiles off their faces.
And yet as a coach, I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: 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.
That’s why at the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.
There you go. Eleven Rings responsible for thirteen rings. It’s funny when you see scandals like the Rutgers basketball coach caught on camera abusing his players or the former Saints’ defensive coach rants about “killing the head so the body will die.” Why? Because guess what? Those coaches were terrible–their teams were notorious under-performers in the exact areas their brutal coaching was supposed to be improving.
Yet we have Jackson, whose principles are bendable, compassionate, passive and clean–and they built some of the strongest, toughest and winningest teams in the history of sports.
Think of that next time you get upset at an employee, the next time you think about yelling and the next time you think that you have to force people to do things.
And read Jackson’s book. It’s a classic.