Thoughts from Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings

My wife, Peggy, put me on to reading Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings, which chronicles his leadership journey through his professional basketball career both as a player and as a coach.  Full disclosure, both Peggy and I find this book of interest not only because of his insights into leadership but also because Phil Jackson was a standout as a basketball player at the University of North Dakota.  (For those who don’t know, we worked at UND for 10 years, and Peggy is a three time graduate.)

In one of the earlier chapters, Phil (I think I can call him Phil) outlines what he calls his basic principles of mindful leadership that have “evolved over the years to help transform disorganized teams into champions.”  While many of us do not inherit “disorganized teams,” I find many of his insights pertinent and applicable to all leadership positions.

1)    Lead from the inside out.

  • For Phil, and this is true for all of us, we need to begin to lead from the heart. We need to provide leadership in those things that we truly believe in.  In my case, I’ve spent a career believing in the importance of providing access to the promise of education.  If it is something you believe in, than you talk about it with your crew, you show your passion for it through your actions.  And I believe in return for this type of leadership, you find that your team also models this behavior; they fulfill their jobs not because of the financial rewards or because they are negative consequences, but because their belief system is parallel to your own.

2)    Bench the ego.

  • Some coaches and leaders lead by being forceful/domineering and others use the “I am your friend” approach.  While either of these may work in the short run, they aren’t that effective for the long haul.  A good example was Billy Martin; he could turn around a team and make them champions by being domineering, but that only worked for a year or two and then he was asked to move on.  Phil’s insight is to check the ego and “distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority.”
  • First distribute the power. From my perspective, this all about empowering people and giving them the support to be successful.  By empowering others, we often free ourselves to focus on “my job as keeper of the team’s vision.”  Second, the latter part of Phil’s point, “without surrendering final authority,” empowering others does not alienate a leader’s responsibility. It still remains that “the buck stops here.”  We are in the end ultimately responsible, and by empowering others we have developed a team who because they are empowered personally feel a share of that responsibility.  One other word about this: as leaders, we are ultimately responsible. This means we take responsibility when things go south and give away the awards and accolades when things work out.

3)    Let each player discover his own destiny.

  • This is definitely related to what I’ve called empowerment.  You can’t force your will on people, Phil reminds us. “If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”  In addition to inspiring the change, as leaders we also need to provide the support, e.g., professional development, to assist with the change.

4)    The key to success is compassion.

  • Compassion for a leader has several layers.  First, we must have compassion for those we work with.  That compassion includes understanding not only what is happening in the workplace but also being sensitive to outside influences that may affect your team at work.  I’m not suggesting that we become “busy bodies.” Heavens no, I am suggesting that we need to be “aware” that there may be more going on than what we see at work.  I can tell you that this isn’t a strong suit of mine, and I do depend on specific people in the organization to help keep my “awareness” heightened.
  •  Another layer is having and modeling compassion for our customers, whether they be internal or external.  In my case, we can’t be successful without the support of faculty and support offices, and what I need to do is to help our team to understand why there are times when we can’t do what we want because of university policies and procedures.  I need to remind them that it isn’t the individual who made up the rule, he or she has been asked to enforce the rule.
  • The final layer is compassion for yourself.  Let’s face it, as leaders we must make difficult decisions and by definition we often times are not popular.  Now this can be taken to the extreme, I’m sure we’ve all heard the old saying, “if you haven’t pissed anyone off today you aren’t doing your job.”  Again, this is not one of my strengths but when faced with tough decisions I review in my mind my personal mission and the mission and vision of our organization.  If I can reconcile those two things, it is the right decision.  Letting go is another question.  Also, I hate making mistakes, but it does happen, and letting go is important.  If I had one piece of advice for a leader that would be learning how “to let it go” — and then I would ask them to teach me.

5)    When in doubt, do nothing.

  • Phil has several more mindful leadership principals and I encourage you to pick up/download his book.  I want to end with this principle because as leaders we are (by trait) people of action.  We are fixers and this is a trait that we must sometimes suppress.  I actually learned this lesson by watching one of the people I worked with early in my career.  We would go into meetings and often they would include others coming to us with specific problems and issues. Enviably even before the problem was laid out my colleague would start laying out solutions.  This was an “aha” moment for me as a leader because I was seeing being a fixer in action.  After the meeting, my colleague and I talked about how we are helping others learn to address their challenges, which demonstrated that sometimes needing to step back and “do nothing” was actually a better learning experience for all.
  • This notion reminds of one of my favorite op-eds about leadership in higher education administrative positions.  The article is called “The Right Kind of Nothing” by Michael C. Munger.  The author suggests that there are two qualities that characterize an academic administrator, first is the capacity to take responsibility and second is a need for control.  Successful administrators are those who can balance these two qualities and specifically the ability to sharply circumscribe the need for control.  We need to recognize that as administrators there are actually a limited number of things we can fix, and — let’s face it — other people may need to do the fixing.  Munger captures the importance of doing the right kind of nothing with his observation that letting go of the need to control is an “enormous force multiplier: You can be in many places at once because others have taken ownership through your leadership.”

6)    Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • This a leadership trait that I wanted to add after Peggy and I received a wonderful gift from one of our neighbors: his willingness to stop with his truck and scoop to assist in moving 15 inches of snow off our driveway.  You can see from the picture we had lots of snow and even with his help I still spent nearly two hours moving snow.  Many thanks to him and to all my colleagues who have given so freely of their help throughout my career.

snow

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2 Responses to Thoughts from Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings

  1. So true, Jim! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It was good to see you at the Online Leadership Summit and I look forward to seeing you at the UPCEA Annual in Miami.

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