As great a nickname as “The Zen Master” has been for Phil Jackson, the reality is that most people don’t even know what Zen really is.
And most people definitely don’t get who Jackson really is.
Jackson’s new book set to be released Tuesday, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, offers one more chance to understand the greatest coach in pro basketball history as he transitions into the latest NBA front-office guy with something to prove.
But what differentiates Jackson from experienced talent evaluators or big-name players moving into executive positions is that there is essentially no one more likely to establish a basketball organization that truly works together.
He should be more accurately called “The Awareness Master,” though the "A" is nowhere near as catchy as the "Z." Awareness is Jackson’s gift, and it helps him understand expertly when to leave a moment or person alone and when to take a stand.
It’s more often something in between the "A" and "Z": Jackson serving as a gentle trail guide for those he coaches or befriends as they move forward through life and basketball.
An advance copy of Eleven Rings reveals some new information such as Jackson telling his Lakers during the 2011 NBA playoffs that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and his further struggle with Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault charge because Jackson’s daughter Brooke, while in college, was the victim of an assault while on a date with a campus athlete.
But the gist of the book is teaching how to get more out of those around you and the experiences you share with them. He tells you at different times to see beyond what is seen and to hear the unheard, which seems impossible, but is how Jackson has known what to do or say en route to those 11 NBA championships.
Before whichever NBA franchise ultimately hires Jackson for his skill in making people better together, here are the 11 best leadership lessons Jackson shares in his new book from his illustrious career, applicable to groups in any walk of life:
1. Jackson’s approach to getting a special talent such as Michael Jordan on board:
I didn’t dictate to him what I wanted; I simply pushed him to think about the problem in a different way, mostly by asking him questions about the impact that this or that strategy might have on the team. "How do you think Scottie (Pippen) or Horace (Grant) would feel if you did this?" I would say. I treated him like a partner, and slowly he began to shift his way of thinking. When I let him solve the problem himself, he was more likely to buy into the solution and not repeat the same counterproductive behavior in the future.
2. Jackson’s deep connection with Kobe Bryant didn’t happen until long after their difficult 2003-04 season together. They went their separate ways, but reunited in 2006 ready to give more to each other.
About the Lakers’ 2009 NBA title, Jackson writes:
The most gratifying thing of all was watching Kobe transform from a selfish, demanding player into a leader that his teammates wanted to follow. To get there, Kobe had to learn to give in order to get back in return. Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.
3. Pushing enigmas like Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest/Metta World Peace required a different touch. Rodman and Artest were uncommonly sensitive, and thus deeply in tune even with Jackson’s body language.
About Rodman’s first Bulls season, Jackson writes:
That year I stopped pacing along the sidelines during games because I noticed that whenever I got agitated, Dennis would become hyperactive. And if I argued with a ref, it would only give him license to do the same.
About Artest feeling easily threatened early in his first Lakers season, Jackson writes:
I realized that the best way to communicate with Ron was to couch everything in a positive way, not just with the words I used, but with my gestures and facial expressions as well.
4. Although he acknowledged “some people find me aloof and enigmatic,” Jackson said he tries to show he cares about others through subtle gestures. His tradition of handing out books to all his players is meant to show his interest in them as people.
He also sought to empower assistants or role players wherever possible, seeing the importance in buy-in from those with the least reason to buy in.
What I’ve learned over the years is that the most effective approach is to delegate authority as much as possible and to nurture everyone else’s leadership skills as well. When I’m able to do that, it not only builds team unity and allows others to grow but also, paradoxically, strengthens my role as leader.
5. Jackson created a meaningful sense of fraternity through sacred rites such as one he took from Vince Lombardi, asking the players at the start of training camp to stand along the baseline.
“If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching,” Jackson told them, “as a sign of your commitment, step across that line.”
6. A graphic representation of the need to delineate players being on board or not arose when Pippen infamously balked at Jackson drawing up a last-second shot for Toni Kukoc in the Bulls’ 1994 Jordan-less playoffs.
Jackson simply asked Pippen: “Are you in or out?” Pippen answered: “I’m out,” so Jackson subbed in Pete Meyers to inbound to Kukoc, who won the game.
In the postgame locker room, Jackson had Bill Cartwright address Pippen through tears, expressing the team’s profound disappointment, a far greater moral message to Pippen than any sort of discipline the coach could have administered.
In the heat of the game, I simply tried to stay in the moment and make decisions based on what was actually happening. Rather than asserting my ego and inflaming the situation further, I did what needed to be done: find someone to throw in the ball and go for the win. Afterward, rather than trying to fix things myself, I let the players solve the problem.
7. In Jackson’s first Lakers season, Shaquille O’Neal’s critical nature, especially toward Bryant, led Jackson to have breakfast with the big man. The coach cited Jordan’s great will inspiring Bulls teams to believe and urged O’Neal to do whatever it took to achieve the same result.
I told Shaq he needed to find his own way to inspire the Lakers. He needed to express his confidence and natural joy for the game in such a way that his teammates, Kobe especially, felt that if they joined forces with him, nothing would be impossible. A team leader’s No. 1 job, I explained, was to build up his teammates, not tear them down.
8. Jackson tweaks the classifications introduced in the 2008 book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright and shows how he needed to take teams such as the 1999-2000 and 2008-09 Lakers from Stage 3 of “I’m great (and you’re not)” to Stage 4 of “We’re great (and they’re not).” The highest level of Stage 5 (“Life is great”) was reserved for the 1995-96 Bulls, who went 72-10.
By midseason, it became clear to me that it wasn’t competition per se that was driving the team; it was simply the joy of the game itself. This dance was ours, and the only team that could compete against us was ourselves.
9. Jackson references the Lakers’ 39-point loss in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals in Boston to show how “there’s nothing like a humiliating loss to focus the mind.” The greater the pain, the greater the drive for pain relief.
The Lakers got their redemption the next year against the Orlando Magic and then further by paying back the Celtics in the 2010 Finals. Jackson’s former Knicks teammate, Willis Reed, called him to ask about that 39-point loss in Boston in ‘08, and the conversation went like this…
Reed: “I figured you just left your guys out there to die...so that they could learn something from that awful feeling.”
Jackson: “Yes. Because you can’t really understand what that’s like unless you go through it yourself.”
10. How do you repeat success? Jackson should know that one.
The key to sustained success is to keep growing as a team. Winning is about moving into the unknown and creating something new. Remember that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie when someone asks Indy what he’s going to do next, and he replies, "I don’t know. I’m making it up as we go along." That’s how I view leadership. It’s an act of controlled improvisation, a Thelonious Monk finger exercise, from one moment to the next.
11. Jackson often advocates the approach that less is more and usually tries to solve problems by making himself smaller and letting the world grow around him.
“One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people," Jackson writes. "If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.