Using story and ritual to forge a sense of deep purpose

Using story and ritual to forge a sense of deep purpose

This week, I continue on the example of Phil Jackson’s use of stories of identity and group rituals to shape the culture and mindset of his teams.

The basic elements of any group’s culture are expressed in its stories of identity and in its rituals. It all begins with the leader’s personal stories—stories of who I am, what I stand for, and why I do things the way I do. These personal stories often lay the foundation for the group’s culture, a culture that is expressed in the collective stories of who we are, what is important to us, and where we are going. The group’s rituals make the stories tangible; they are the physical manifestations and enactments of the team’s culture, values and beliefs.

Phil Jackson used personal storytelling and ritual extensively, from a variety of sources—his own experience, Zen Buddhism, or the Lakota Sioux tribe of his native North Dakota—to guide the team in the direction of unselfishness and superior cohesion.  Under the coach’s leadership, their ultimate mission became more about creating a unique team spirit, an example for the modern sports world, than about the mere act of winning games or even championships.

In order to reinforce the feeling of a collective, meaningful and sacred quest, Coach Jackson created a campfire atmosphere in the team’s meeting room, a unique place of symbol and story where group members reflected and bonded. In Sacred Hoops, he describes this remarkable room in the most dramatic and emotional of terms, leaving the reader with a clear picture of its sacrosanct character:

As he writes: “The team room at the Sheri L. Berto Center is the perfect setting for an epiphany.  It’s the inner sanctum of the Chicago Bulls—a sacred space adorned with Native American totems and other symbolic objects I’ve collected over the years.  On one wall hangs a wooden arrow with a tobacco pouch tied to it—the Lakota Sioux symbol of prayer—and on another a bear claw necklace, which, I’m told, conveys power and wisdom upon its beholder.  The room also contains the middle feather of an owl (for balance and harmony); a painting that tells the story of the great mystical warrior, Crazy Horse; and photos of a white buffalo calf born in Wisconsin.  To the Sioux, the white buffalo is the most sacred of animals, a symbol of prosperity and good fortune…I had the room decorated this way to reinforce in the players’ minds that our journey together each year, from the start of training camp to the last whistle in the playoffs, is a sacred quest.  This is our holy sanctuary, the place where the players come together and prepare our hearts and minds for battle, hidden from the probing eyes of the media and the harsh realities of the outside world.  This is the room where the spirit of the team takes form.”

In this team room, he succeeds in establishing a sacred atmosphere of ceremony, creating a private place where team members rehearse their stories of identity and of group bonding.  His description of the team meeting room gives us the genuine feel of a ceremonial tribal campfire.

Himself a deep thinker influenced by diverse cultures and philosophies, Native American and Zen Buddhist for example, Jackson has co-created with his team a “who we are” story consistent with his “who I am” story.  We have a unique identity; we are different, and we are more than basketball players. We are deep thinkers and holy crusaders who come together in a sacred place to prepare our hearts and minds for the righteous quest, a task with a purpose that transcends sport.

In successful organizations, whether in business, sport or elsewhere, I often find leaders who are able to connect their group’s endeavors to a higher purpose, to lead them on a quest that gives deeper meaning to their day-to-day activities. To me, the extraordinary success of Phil Jackson has its roots in his skill at getting his teams to see a bigger picture.


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