Last time, I discussed one of the soft skills I consider among the most important for a leader: the capacity to cultivate and maintain deep relationships with individual team members. When I think of the outstanding sports coaches I have worked with, interviewed or studied, I often find that they share three key characteristics—all of which I have come to see as elements of the “slow management” techniques I recommend to all my business clients. In addition to maintaining strong individual relationships with their players, the best coaches build cultures of unity, and they provide a sense of deeper purpose to their teams.
Former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson—the most successful coach in NBA history by number of titles garnered or percentage of games won—was renowned for his ability to turn basketball’s rock stars into team players. As we saw in the previous post, part of Jackson’s remarkable record can be attributed to the personal bonds he cultivated with his group’s members. Jackson’s individual relationships simply formed the foundation for the other two elements—a sense of deep purpose and a culture that created a spiritual environment on his teams.
Jackson is a lifelong learner whose lessons come from a variety of experiences. And, he understood how to use his life lessons to shape a team identity. Blending principles from Zen Buddhism and the teachings of the Lakota Sioux tribe with his experience from over twenty years as a professional player and coach, Jackson led Michael Jordan and the Bulls to three consecutive titles not once, but twice, from ’91 to ’93 and ’96 to ’98. Then he did it yet again with the Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, from ’00 to ’02. In total, the Lakers won five NBA titles during Jackson’s tenure from 2000 to 2010.
Before Jackson arrived, both the Bulls and the Lakers were teams that, despite the presence of awe-inspiring prowess, had failed to achieve the harmony and synchronization needed to win championships. Under Jackson’s direction, some of the league’s flashiest talents became disciples of his uniquely unselfish, team-oriented style. As a result, they reached unprecedented heights of collective achievement.
When Jackson took over as coach of Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 1989, and the Lakers in 2000, he inherited teams with some of the world’s most spectacular players, most of whom had never won a professional championship. One of Jackson’s central goals from the outset was to raise the team’s level of consciousness, to remind them continuously that they were part of a large and noteworthy quest, and that their collective pursuit carried an importance far beyond the individual players, the stardom, the money, or the egos.
Imagine the task of Coach Jackson as he attempted to persuade NBA players that they should suppress their individual goals for a greater good, for a quest that he saw in spiritual terms. These world-class athletes are often concerned, above all else, with the individual statistics and achievements on which they are evaluated and compensated. They have been brought up to believe they are stars; they make more money and are generally far more famous than their coaches. They often possess extraordinarily large egos, and they have great difficulty changing their “game”.
When a new coach tries to modify their standard behavior, to make them more team oriented, such players often don’t see the need to go along at all. And, the philosophical Jackson went far beyond changing their on-court demeanor, their game tactics or systems of play. He strove to redefine the concept of team, to forge among them deep bonds based on the unselfish commitment to a common pursuit, and to each other.
In his 1995 book, Sacred Hoops, Jackson describes his view of any group’s search for collective meaning: “The most effective way to forge a winning team is to call on the players’ need to connect to something larger than themselves. Even for those who don’t consider themselves ‘spiritual’ in a conventional sense, creating a successful team—whether it’s an NBA champion or a record-setting sales force—is essentially a spiritual act. It requires the individuals involved to surrender their self-interest for the greater good so that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.”
In the next post, we look in more detail at how Jackson built the cultures of shared purpose that framed his teams’ successes.