Phil Jackson’s 11 Principles of Leadership

Few people would be more qualified to talk about leadership than Phil Jackson in the sports arena. Jackson is considered one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA clenching 11 championship titles as a coach. This is by far the most wins in the history of NBA.

In his new book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Successhe explores the alchemy of leadership and coaching. This book is a fantastic read not only for basketball fans who have followed Jordon and Bryant’s legacy, but also for leaders who can learn from Jackson’s lessons in team dynamics, organizational culture, and coaching. 

Phil Jackson shares 11 leadership principles that have propelled him to become a championship leader. 

1. Lead From the Inside Out. Avoid fads and excessive benchmarking. Rather lead from who you are. Develop a more open-minded. “As time went by, I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more players could hear me and benefit from what I gleaned.”

 2. Bench the Ego. “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. Paradoxically, this approach strengthened my effectiveness because it freed me to focus on my job as keeper of the team’s vision.       

“Some coaches insist on having the last word, but I always tried to 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.” 

3. Let Each Player Discover His Own Destiny. “One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.” He empowered team members to think for themselves so they can make difficult decisions by themselves. In essence, he taught skills to catch a fish, rather than feeding the fish every time.

“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just 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? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.” 

4. The Road to Freedom is a Beautiful System. Jackson used the triangle offense system, a controversial tool much like tools used for innovation in organizations, to inject a sense of freedom in the team’s play. “What attracted me to the triangle was the way it empowers the players, offering each one a vital role to play as well as a high level of creativity within a clear, well-defined structure…With the triangle you can’t stand around and wait for the Michael Jordons and Kobe Bryants of the world to work their magic. All five players must be fully engaged every second – or the whole system will fail. That stimulates an ongoing process of group problem solving in real time, not just on a coach’s clipboard during time-outs.” 

5. Turn the Mundane into the Sacred.  “As I see it, my job as coach was to make something meaningful out of one of the most mundane activities on the planet: Playing pro basketball.” He incorporated meditation into his team’s practices. “I wanted to give players something besides X’s and O’s to focus on. What’s more, we often invented rituals of our own to infuse practices with a sense of the sacred.” 

6. One Breath = One Mind. Players “often have to make split-second decisions under enormous pressure. I discovered that when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.” 

“If you place too many restrictions on players, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to buck the system. Like all of us, they need a certain degree of structure in their lives, but they also require enough latitude to express themselves creatively.” 

7. The Key to Success is Compassion. “Now, ‘compassion’ is not a word 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 in the room.” Compassion breaks down barriers among people. Jackson writes,

“When Michael returned to the Bulls in 1995 after a year and a half of playing minor league baseball, he didn’t know most of the players and he felt completely out of sync with the team. It wasn’t until he got into a fight with Steve Kerr at practice that he realized he needed to get to know his teammates more intimately. He had to understand what made them tick, so that he could work with them more productively. That moment of awakening helped Michael become a compassionate leader and ultimately helped transform the team into one of the greatest of all time.

8. Keep Your Eye on the Spirit, Not on the Scoreboard. “When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athlete most fully manifest.” When a player is “playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential for the team that transcends his own limitations and helps his teammates transcend theirs. When this happens, the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts.” He adds, “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.” 

9. Sometimes You Have to Pull Out the Big Stick. At times Jackson used “tricks to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness. 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.” 

10. When in Doubt, Do Nothing. “Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something—anything—to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing….I subscribe to the philosophy of the late Satchel Paige, who said, ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.'” 

11. Forget the Ring. Leaders hate losing. “And yet as coach, 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…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.” 

Question:  What is your number one principle that you live by as a leader? 

  • Paul, what a great post. I am a huge fan of Phil and his leadership. It must be hard to deal with the drama of players and try to develop a team. They are all such great points, but I love when he talked about speaking from the heart and that’s how he grew his relationships.

    My number one principle has to be authenticity. No matter how little I know or how much, I want to be as real and open with my team as possible. Thanks for this Paul!

    • Thanks Clint. Yes, it’s interesting to learn how Phil incorporated practices that fostered a sense of unity and selflessness in the team. I’m fascinated that he attributes ‘love’ as a critical ingredient for his success.

      “It takes a number of critical factors to win an NBA championship, including the right mix of talent, creativity intelligence, toughness, and of course luck. But if a team doesn’t have the most essential ingredient – love – none of those other factors matter.” – Phil Jackson

  • Paul, thank you for summarizing this for us. I’ve looked at getting that book but haven’t bought it yet.

    I also heard that Jackson gave each of his players specific books to read based on what he saw in them. Was that covered in this?

    I think my favorite quote you shared was, “If you place too many restrictions on players, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to buck the system.” If you’ve read “Drive” by Daniel Pink, you’re familiar with Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I think Phil reiterated that well.

    • You’ll love the book Ellory. In fact I was thinking about you because the essence of Phil’s leadership style is one of empowerment. It’s amazing to see a leader and coach foster an environment where each person can create their own way of doing things under the same mission – that is to win the championship title.

      To answer your question, yes Jackson talks about giving specific books to read to different players based on his observation. He seems to have acutely attuned to the emotional life of players as well.

  • Lynn Hare

    Eleven Rings sounds awesome! I love letting each player discover his own destiny. When counseling friends, I find that it’s important to not give answers, but to ask thought-provoking questions. Then my friend, encouraged, can sit at the feet of the Master. Together we share what we hear the Lord declaring over the matter.

    • You’re right Lynn. Asking powerful questions unleashes powerful conversations.

  • Thanks for distilling the points. I love # 1 and it reminds me of something Lincoln Parks (a fellow blogger) often says, “Lead like you” 🙂 There’s always less pressure and people respond better to genuineness. Nonetheless while being ourselves is the simplest of things, it’s often the hardest thing to put in practice 🙂

    • Yes, Lincoln Parks is right. Lead Like You. Love it. Thanks Ngina.

      I can’t agree more with you that it’s it’s so easy to say it but only a handful are able to master it. One thing I think would be helpful is the gain a strong confidence in who we are. That’s about asking the question, “Whose are we?”

      As Colossians 2:6-7 says, we must walk in him, rooted and built up in him. We will be truly liberated from the bondage of social pressure and self-consciousness. Our focus now belongs to God, our Author, Creator, and Father.

  • These are great points! Looking forward to reading the book. One of my top principles is to always be growing and learning. When I do I become better and move toward my potential.

  • Kent Williams

    I love this post! Personally, my #1 principle is as a leader, my role is not to tell others what to do. It is to enable them to do what is needed.
    From the list, I love #11. It’s not about the ring. It’s about doing what is right.

    • You’re right Kent. So many leaders focus on winning at the expense of losing something greater such as trust, team culture, and human relations. Thanks for reading!

  • Francis Nakamura

    Nice post Paul. Thanks for sharing these outstanding principles from the Zen Master, which can benefit leaders in all areas.

    I particularly like # 6 One Breath = One Mind for team building, and # 8 The power of Synergy based on the principle of 1 + 1 = 3 .

    My personal favorite principle is Respect – for everyone . Namaste …

  • This is excellent. Read his earlier book, “Sacred Hoops” – it is terrific too.

  • Karel Sovak

    Shows what happens when you surround yourself with great people.