Did Phil Jackson's Zen win over MJ's Drive?
The Leader and Organizational Culture
What matters more – the culture or the leader? Can a leader transform a culture, or will he be overcome by the culture of the organization he is leading? What does it take to turn a team around? Can a leader succeed at the head of more than one organization? A look at Phil Jackson answers these questions.
Most people associate Phil Jackson with the championship teams of the Chicago Bulls during the nineties. He coached them to championship success six times in nine years – two runs of three consecutive wins. He won with Chicago in 1991, 1992, and 1993 – and again in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Scoffers might write this off to the presence of Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, certainly of his generation. But to ascribe all the merit for the success to Jordan would mean to overlook the tremendous coaching talent of Phil Jackson. He secured his legacy by leading the Los Angeles Lakers a decade later (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013). He holds the record for most NBA Championships as a coach, winning six times with the Chicago Bulls and four times with the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning once as a player for the New York Knicks, the total ring count rises to 11 (Basketball Hall of Fame, n.d.).
As a son of Christian ministers, he dealt with leadership themes from childhood. Always maintaining a deep sense of spirituality, he did not feel that he gelled as well in his parents’ spiritual tradition. Going through adolescence, he had to find himself and his way to make an impact in the world. He would see this through basketball. A talented player, he contributed to the New York Knick’s championship in 1973. Throughout his playing career, however, others saw his potential as a coach, and this helped to shape his opportunities until he finished out his career with the New Jersey Nets, in a role as an older player who could help manage the younger talent on the team.
How did Jackson create such incredible teams? He made sure to get the right people on the team. He certainly had some extraordinary superstars. He knew that it was necessary to “make sure you’re super clear about where you’re headed, what you’re trying to achieve, and what the behaviors are” (Divine Mercy University [DMU], 2016, [min. 2:12]). He had to dig within himself to be sure that he “[he was] willing, and [had] the strength of character, to enter the danger, and do the difficult things to bring the team along” (DMU, 2016, [min. 2:20]). None of the teams that Jackson worked with would revolve solely around the superstar, as much as the media would try to paint it that way. Sometimes the stars needed to learn this, but it was always about the team.
Phil Jackson focused on the young men he was coaching. “What moves me is watching young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus—with their whole heart and soul—on something greater than themselves. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s something you never forget” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 10). From his days as a player, he had been able to support the younger players on the team. His mentoring experience intensified as he played with the New Jersey Nets during the twilight of his playing career.
“After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 17). Observing the game and the players was one of his essential tools. He felt the need to respect the culture that was already present. At the same time, he was a great creator of culture.
His relation to Zen Buddhism affected his coaching style. He saw meditation as “an easily accessible technique for quieting the restless mind and focusing attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. This is extremely useful for basketball players, who often have to make split-second decisions under enormous pressure” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 21). His connection to spirituality seems to be primarily pragmatic. He felt he had a hyperactive mind and wanted a way to control it. The meditation techniques of Zen Buddhism seemed to give him a tool for this purpose.
Sometimes, the best response is to do nothing. “On a deeper level, I believe that focusing on something other than the business at hand can be the most effective way to solve complex problems. When the mind is allowed to relax, inspiration often follows” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 23).
Coaches can tend to be focused solely on winning. “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” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 25).
Finding your Voice
“To effectively Model the Way, you must first be clear about your own guiding principles. You must clarify values by finding your voice” (Kouzes & Posner, 2012, p. 16). Jackson does an excellent job of this, outlining 11 leadership principles that guide his thinking and judgment as a leader. This helps to ensure that he has a clear voice that resonates with the men he leads. Having trust exercises modeled after Vince Lombardi, involving each player crossing a line to indicate buy-in, ensures that the players contribute to the system that Jackson has worked so hard to create.
“To find your voice, you have to explore your inner self. You have to discover what you care about, what defines you, and what makes you who you are” (Kouzes & Posner, 2012, p. 46). Throughout his playing and coaching career, Jackson has shown himself to be introspective. This has helped him to develop his philosophy and clarify the key points of his coaching philosophy.
The Meaning of Coaching
“Task interdependence typically is greater with teams than with groups” (Hughes et al., 2021, p. 417). An NBA basketball team has the chance to be a highly cohesive unit. However, they must agree to be coached. “The essence of coaching is to get the players to wholeheartedly agree to being coached, then offer them a sense of their destiny as a team” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 20). This meant teaching the more powerful players that they needed the others while at the same time encouraging the players on the bench to see their contributions as valuable.
Coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson noted that a change in Kobe Bryant was key to forming the team culture. “The new Kobe who had emerged during the season took his role as team leader to heart” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 13). Jackson noted the need for bonding from the beginning, but Kobe had resisted. He had “scoffed at the idea, claiming that all those guys were interested in were cars and women. Now he was making an effort to connect more closely with his teammates and figure out how to forge them into a more cohesive team” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 13).
Not Just Robots
Jackson wanted to make sure that the players could think for themselves. “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. But not me” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 18).
He was committed to promoting a team culture. “Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 23). It was a style of play that was glorious for him as a coach and tremendously effective for his teams.
Good followers are essential to forming an effective team. “Followers do not do followership, they do leadership. Both leaders and followers from one relationship that is leadership” (Rost, 2008, p. 109). When a team recognizes the relative value of the various members, it is much stronger and can get much more done.
“Passive people are not in a relationship. They have chosen not to be involved. They cannot have influence. Passive people are not followers” (Rost, 1991, p. 109). Jackson saw the necessity of getting his Lakers to bond and work together. “During the 2008–09 season the Lakers needed to shift from a stage 3 team to a stage 4 in order to win. The key was getting a critical mass of players to buy into a more selfless approach to the game” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 2014). This would allow them to work together in such a way that they could create momentum to win.
“In one group or organization people can be leaders. In other groups and organizations they can be followers. Followers are not always followers in all leadership relationships” (Rost, 1991, p. 109). When Jackson joined the Bulls in 1987, he learned about the “triangle offense, that aligned perfectly with the values of selflessness and mindful awareness [he had] been studying in Zen Buddhism” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 18). He had to sell the offense, as many thought it was too complicated. Some would say it was “rigid, outdated, and complicated to learn, none of which is true. In fact, the triangle is a simpler offense than most NBA teams run today. Best of all, it automatically stimulates creativity and teamwork, freeing players from having to memorize dozens of set plays” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 19). He liked it because it decentralized the game, no longer focusing on the superstars. “The beauty of the system—and this applies to all kinds of systems, not just the triangle—was that it turned the whole team into a learning organization” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 58). Humility plays into a lot of Jackson’s game philosophy.
Control or Watching?
For me, one of the most impressive tests of Phil Jackson came when Dennis Rodman joined the team. Jackson’s Zen mentality helped him considerably. He had learned that “the best way to control people… is to give them a lot of room and encourage them to be mischievous, then watch them” (Jackson & Dehanity, 2013, p. 45). This seemed to be his primary strategy with the eccentric but talented Rodman. It allowed the team to absorb the tremendous energy of Rodman without allowing him to upset the team dynamics that they had worked so hard to form.
Along with many of Jackson’s strategies, it ended with a championship ring. “People are not lousy, period. Leaders have to find a better fit between their organization’s needs and their people’s capabilities” (Tichy & Charan, 1989, p. 114). Getting Rodman to play effectively for the Bulls was quite a feat, especially seeing the constant struggles with the Detroit Pistons and especially the San Antonio Spurs.
Phil Jackson’s ability to enunciate his leadership principles quickly and briefly, along with his remarkable success as a head coach, make it clear that he is a great leader. He is not merely a transactional leader but a transformational leader.
“Transformational leaders behave in ways that motivate and inspire those around them by providing meaning and challenge to their followers’ work” (Bass & Riggio, 2005, p. 5). This course has focused on transformational leadership and contributes significantly to the groups that benefit from such a leader. Who would prefer to be unmotivated and uninspired? Transformational leaders help people to bring the best of themselves to the table.
Phil Jackson is a transformational leader. How does this compare to a Catholic-Christian perspective on leadership? “In the Catholic-Christian view, the source of our dignity is explicit. We are made in the image and likeness of God. That is the source of our dignity. The transformational model of leadership also recognizes the dignity of the person; however its source is implied” (DMU, 2015, [min. 1:50]). Jackson has a lot of life philosophy gleaned from various spiritual traditions. There is, however, no real foundation for the dignity of the person, even though it seems to be a tenet that he accepts and cherishes.
“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion” (Tichy & Charan, 1989, p. 113). Jackson embodies this fully. He has the vision to communicate to each team he coaches. If he had only won with the Chicago Bulls during the Jordan years, there would not be so much fuss about him. He has won three in a row three times – twice with the Bulls and once with the Lakers.
What matters more – the organizational culture or the leader? Jackson shows us firsthand that both are important. But it is precisely part of the mission of the leader to create or cultivate the proper culture. Jackson walked into some impressive organizations with a lot of talent. And yet, he was always able to contribute much of himself and significantly impact the culture. I suppose we could imagine a culture that could withstand or survive the impact of an unsavory leader. Generally speaking, a good leader will eventually change an organization’s culture for the better.
Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2005). Transformational leadership. https://www-taylorfrancis-com.divinemercy.idm.oclc.org/books/9781410617095(2nd ed.). Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Inc.
Basketball Hall of Fame. (n.d.). Phil Jackson. https://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/phil-jackson/
Divine Mercy University (Producer). (2015). The Catholic-Christian model and transformational leadership [Video]. [4:25 min.]
Divine Mercy University (Producer). (2016). Insights on how teams start, develop, and perform well. [Video]. [9:42 min.]
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2021). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (10th ed.). McGraw Hill.
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Jackson, P., Dehanity, H. (2013). Eleven rings. The soul of success. The Penguin Press.
Rost, J. C. (1991). Leadership for the twenty-first century. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Tichy, N., & Charan, R. (1989). Speed, simplicity, self-confidence: An interview with Jack Welch. Harvard Business Review, 67(5), 112–120.