Phil Jackson – Coach, Mentor, Teacher, ‘Zen Master’

(Photo: Mark Ralston; AFP; Getty Images)

“If you meet the Buddha in the lane, make sure you feed him the ball.” – Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson is the man. He is without question the best coach in NBA history, leading Kobe and Mike (and Shaq) to multiple championships. Some would say he couldn’t have done it without them. I would argue the reverse: championship teams always have great players on them. He has replicated the pinnacle of success more times than any NBA coach ever, and has now embarked upon on the laborious task of rebuilding the New York Knicks (a storied franchise that has flirted with mediocrity over the past 10+ years).

Why is he the TPM Progressive of the Month?

In the big business of professional sports, coaches are the balance-makers between revenue generation and player development. They are given a small army of players, and expected to make it work. Focus too heavily on one aspect, and the other suffers (which might mean your job). In the case of markets where winning isn’t required (see Toronto for more), this pressure isn’t as high.

So, what distinguishes Jackson from his other coaches?

1. Coaches are supposed to win – not only did he win, he fundamentally applied a new selfless system (the Triangle offense) to that end. It forces players to work together, and to read each other, for the best shot possible. We can never extricate his successes from the players he worked with, but that is really a moot point, isn’t it? Eleven championship rings speak loudly.

2. Good coaches are supposed to inspire and motivate – this he did. Through his work, he activates the Situational Leadership model which is the antithesis to the ‘one size fits all’ mentoring and coaching approach. This required him to establish authentic connections to his players, for example making recommendations on what books to read at specific points in time, that were relevant to each player. This is really a tactic that can only be effective by truly knowing what makes someone tick. It is in blending elements of indigenous and Buddhist spirituality together that Jackson has essentially created a new model of leadership development, and in doing so, garnered the title of ‘Zen Master’. This ultimately leads to…

3. ESPN’s Chris Broussard stating that, “[b]eing a great NBA coach is about managing egos, earning your players’ respect, developing team chemistry, making (in-game and off-day) adjustments, and emphasizing the right things. And no one’s ever done all that better than Jackson.”

4. Jackson brought together a group of men who operate in a testosterone-driven environment – complete with traditional gender roles, competitive fangs, and stereotypes of manliness – to open up, hold hands, meditate, and transcend the individual for the group.

While mindfulness has been thrown around as a buzz word, here’s the thing – it works. Applying it to your personal life, daily practice, business, or management strategy helps you achieve great things. It quiets out the noise and lets you and your team focus on the goal at hand: whether greater productivity or inner peace.

The ‘Jackson School of Management’ translates off the court as well – see this Forbes article on Jackson.

I encourage you to read up on Phil Jackson, TPM’s Progressive of the Month. Search for the book at a local public library, or better yet, grab it from your local bookstore.

Selected bibliography:

Sacred Hoops

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success