Phil Jackson is the winningest coach in NBA history. He coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to six titles during the 1990s. As head coach of the Lakers, he won another five titles, in addition to the two he won as a player with the Knicks in the 1970s.
His coaching style, which utilized Tex Winters’ triangle offense, was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy and Native American spiritual practices.
Jackson’s book, 11 Rings: The Soul of Success, outlines the development and implementation of his coaching philosophy. With stories of each championship season (or ring), and examples of his coaching practices at work, Jackson breaks down what has helped him generate such staggering success.
(Consider that he won his 11 titles in less than a 20-year span.)
11 Rings: The Soul of Success is an entertaining and humble read that is vintage Phil Jackson.
Leaders will find plenty of takeaways, from how to deal with difficult and eccentric team members (Ron Artest and Dennis Rodman), getting hyper-stars to buy into the team (Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant), and managing success and failure at the highest levels.
Here are some of my favorite quotes and passages from Jackson’s 11 Rings, including key takeaways and thoughts of my own.
Where to Buy — 11 Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson
Effective coaching and leadership are not a paint-by-numbers process, a checklist, or something mechanical.
- “It’s a mysterious juggling act that requires not only a thorough knowledge of the time-honored laws of the game but also an open heart, a clear mind, and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit.”
Sometimes the best thing you can do as a leader is to get out of the way and let players and team members figure things out for themselves. Developing autonomy is a crucial leadership skill and can not be done by always hand-holding team members.
- “You can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”
- “Most players are used to letting their coach think for them. When they run into a problem on the court, they look nervously over at the sidelines expecting coach to come up with an answer. Many coaches will gladly accommodate them. Bot not me. I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.”
Look beyond the skill set and work on improving the person, not just the job.
- “My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just as 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?”
Provide opportunities for everyone on the team to contribute. Dissension happens from the lower ranks when team members aren’t able to be part of the team.
- “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.”
- “One of the hardest jobs of a coach is keeping the role players from undermining team chemistry… My strategy was to keep the backups as engaged as possible in the flow of the game.”
As a leader, it’s important to understand the goals and fears of team members.
- “Compassion is a word not 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 on the team.”
- “Most players live in a state of constant anxiety, worrying about whether they’re going to be hurt or humiliated, cut or traded, or, worst of all, make a foolish mistake that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Jackson worked to prepare his athletes in practice so that they would be ready for adversity during games and under the lights.
- “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.”
On being the bad guy…
Leaders must have a hard edge and be willing to use it when necessary.
Just because Jackson’s approach seemed soft and emphasized vulnerability, he wasn’t scared to come down on players, even if the stick he used was different. With the Bulls, he would set-up scrimmages with lopsided teams and not call any fouls on the weaker team, which drove his superstar, Michael Jordan, who hated to lose, up the wall.
- “This scheme used to drive Michael nuts because he couldn’t stand losing, even though he knew the game was rigged.”
He sat down with Luke Walton after coming down hard on him. He knew that Walton was looking to being a coach himself one day.
- “Coaching isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes no matter how nice a guy you are, you’re going to have to be an asshole. You can’t be a coach if you need to be liked.”
On the process…
Elite coaches and players often talk about valuing the process. Mastering the craft and remaining present. Prepare as best you can and let go of the outcome or result.
- “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. The ride is a lot more fun this way.”
Focus on the process and the journey and the ring will take care of itself.
- “At the start of every season I encouraged players to focus on 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. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.”
- “There’s a Zen saying I often cite that goes, ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.’ The point: Stay focused on the task at hand rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.”
On using meditation…
Meditation helped to clear Jackson’s mind. By clearing the inner chatter he was better prepared to deal with the exterior stuff.
- “It took me years to still my busy mind, but in the process I discovered that the more aware I became of what was going on inside me, the more connected I became to the world outside. I became more patient with others and calmer under pressure—qualities that helped me immensely when I became a coach.”
On using systems…
Having a good system allows criticism and accountability to flourish, especially with teams that have a lot of ego. When discussing the Triangle offense, developed by Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter, Jackson found the ball-sharing a natural corollary to the system’s ability to spread out accountability.
- “One thing I liked about Tex’s system, from a leadership perspective, was that it depersonalized criticism. It gave me the ability to critique the players’ performance without making them think I was attacking them personally. Pro basketball players are highly sensitive to criticism because almost everything they do is judged on a daily basis by coaches, the media, and just about anyone who owns a TV set.”
When under tremendous stress and pressure, a system is something you can lean on to maintain performance.
- “It gave the players something to fall back on when they were under stress… All they had to do was play their part in the system, knowing that it would inevitably lead to good scoring opportunities.”
A good system also gives you clarity and purpose.
- “The system also gave players a clear purpose as a group and established a high standard of performance for everyone.”
Groups, people, and things change. Improvisation is crucial for continued success. You can stick to the general things that got you success in the first place, but relying on a paint-by-numbers template gets old. The competition gets smarter. Team members change. What worked yesterday, doesn’t always work today.
- “The mistake that championship teams often make is to try to repeat their winning formula. But that rarely works because by the time the next season starts, your opponents have studied all the videos and figured out how to counter every move you made. The key to sustained success is to keep growing as a team. Winning is about moving into the unknown and creating something new.”
Jackson compares leadership to a moment in Indiana Jones, when Indy is asked what he is going to do next. “I don’t know, I’m making it up as I go along.”
- “It’s an act of controlled improvisation, a Thelonious Monk finger exercise, from one moment to the next.”
Where to Buy — 11 Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson
More Book Reviews:
7 Things Athletes Can Learn from “Michael Jordan: The Life” by Roland Lazenby. The ultimate biography of the GOAT, Lazenby dissects the source of killer instinct and gives texture and background to some of the biggest moments of Jordan’s career.
Looking for more reading material? Check out this list of my favorite mental toughness books for athletes.
17 Lessons in Leadership from Above the Line by Urban Meyer. Three-time national college football champion Urban Meyer distills his system for building exceptional leaders.