NBA: 11 Lessons Every Player Needs to Take From Phil Jackson

Management and leadership advice comes in a host of forms. Conferences, seminars, articles written by CEOs and other corporate executives all detail the path to achieving cohesion in the workplace, or how to be a stronger leader. But the leaders of the boardroom aren’t the only people who know a thing or two about managing difficult personalities, or how to exercise authority.

Retired NBA coach and player Phil Jackson released Eleven Rings in May 2013. The book is a memoir about his values, leadership style, and other factors that contributed to his unprecedented eleven NBA championship rings as a coach. Jackson enumerates the 11 principles that assisted his career, and why they are important for everyday life — not just court-side coaching.

1. Lead from the inside-out

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18: Phil Jackson stands for photos during his introductory press conference as President of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 18, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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When you lead from the outside-in, Jackson says, you may have short-term success, but it can’t last. No one wants to be repeatedly “brow-beaten,” and your opponents will eventually discover your game plan. “As time went by, I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more players could hear me and benefit from what I gleaned.”

2. Bench the ego

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: Los Angeles Laker's Pau Gasol and Former NBA coach and player Phil Jackson attend Children's Hospital Los Angeles Gala: Noche de Ninos at L.A. Live Event Deck on October 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Children's Hospital Los Angeles)
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“Some coaches insist on having the last word, but I always tried to foster an environment in which everyone played a leadership role — from the most unschooled rookie to the veteran superstar. 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.”

Jackson says he came to this conclusion after trial-and-error with imposing his will. He realized he needed “to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority.”

3. Let each player discover his own destiny

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 01: Derek Fisher #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks to Head Coach Phil Jackson during the game against the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center on December 1, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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For Jackson, this was as much about letting players find who they are, but also helping to draw them out as well. By working with players to discover their individual talents, he made them assets to the whole team.

“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just 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? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.”

4. The road to freedom is a beautiful system

of the Kentucky Wildcats during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on February 28, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.
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As a coach, Jackson used the triangle offense. In this offensive-play system, all five players need to be cooperating, passing, and moving in order to stretch the defense and open up the court for plays. “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.” For the strategy to work, Jackson says that, “All five players must be fully engaged every second — or the whole system will fail”

5. Turn the mundane into the sacred

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 09: NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson (L) and actor John Lithgow consult their programs before the game between the Arizona Wildcats and the UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion on January 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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“As I see it, my job as coach was to make something meaningful out of one of the most mundane activities on the planet: Playing pro basketball.” Jackson admits there is “glamour” to the life of a professional basketball player, but the actual process — the constant traveling and games can be “soul-numbing.” To combat this, Jackson’s players frequently meditated. “I wanted to give players something besides X’s and O’s to focus on. What’s more, we often invented rituals of our own to infuse practices with a sense of the sacred.”

6. One breath = one mind

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Head coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers coaches his team against the Sacramento Kings at ARCO Arena on November 3, 2010 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Building on the concept of meditation, Jackson “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.” Through rituals and techniques, he created mindfulness for his teams so they could better connect with one another, preparing them for the teamwork needed on the court.

It also helped free players from needless constraints. “If you place too many restrictions on players, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to buck the system. Like all of us, they need a certain degree of structure in their lives, but they also require enough latitude to express themselves creatively.”

7. The key to success is compassion

SALT LAKE CITY, UNITED STATES: Michael Jordan (L) and Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson (R) Most Valuable Player trophy (L) and the Larry O'Brian trophy (R) 14 June after winning game six of the NBA Finals with the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, UT. The Bulls won the game 87-86 to take their sixth NBA championship. AFP PHOTO Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)
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“Now, ‘compassion’ is not a word 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 in the room.”

To illustrate his point, Jackson gives the example of Michael Jordan returning to the Bulls after his brief stint with minor league baseball in the 1990s. Jordan was disconnected from the team, but it took a fight between Jordan and Steve Kerr for Jackson to realize the extent. By having the players get to know and understand each other, Jackson opened up compassion on his team, that enabled them to heighten their level of play.

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

SALT LAKE CITY - MAY 09: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with Head Coach Phil Jackson against the Utah Jazz in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2008 at Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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“Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way.” In emphasizing the player, not the score, Jackson is returning to the ideals behind his fourth point, and the triangle offense. The team working together was the most important aspect, all needed to work to be one part moving toward the same goal.

“When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athlete most fully manifest.” Jackson wanted team players, not just in actions on the court, but in their off-court characteristics as well.

9. Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick

(FromL) Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, coach Phil Jackson and Paul Gasol from Spain chat during training session on October 6, 2010 at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona. The NBA champions from Los Angeles Lakers will play against Euroleague champions from FC Barcelona in an NBA Europe Live basketball game at Palau Sant Jordi on October 7, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
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In terms of coaching, Jackson gave players leeway and chances to express themselves, but occasionally, he used what he referred to as “tricks” meant “to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness.” Jackson was trying to teach his players how to react to unplanned and uncontrollable events.

“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.”

10. When in doubt, do nothing

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 03: Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson smiles during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on December 3, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Kings 113-80. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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Not every problem can be tackled with multitudes of energy, and a can-do spirit according to Jackson. “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.”

11. Forget the ring

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers (L) receives his world championship ring from NBA Commissioner David Stern in ceremony 01 November 2000 in Los Angeles. The Lakers, who won the NBA championship last season against the Indiana Pacers, played their first home game of the season against the Utah Jazz and lost, 97-92. (Electronic Image) AFP PHOTO/Vince BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
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It isn’t always about winning, even in a sport, or field that emphasizes records and results.”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.”

Jackson admits that personally, he hates losing, but he knew that it was of greater importance to emphasize “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.”