Zen and the Art of Teamwork
Lieber, Ron; Rao, Rajiv M.
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Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson has built a career on
being different. From the Grateful Dead decal on the lamp
in his office to his readings of poetry to his team
before playoff games, his approach provides a refreshing
contrast to the steely, tough-guy persona of many
athletic types. As he explains in his new book, Sacred
Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, Jackson
uses a philosophy based in part on Zen Buddhism to get
the most out of his people. He recently sat down with
Fortune's Ron Lieber to discuss the art of making even
superstars like Michael Jordan team players.
What does Zen have to do with managing?
Whether on the court or off, what I call for in my people is
full awareness and attention. That's really what Zen is all
about--waking up and being mindful. As a team, my players
have come to realize that, yes, they've got to have that kind
of awareness and, yes, they've got to be extremely alert on
the floor. In a sense, they become policemen of themselves,
and that's really more fun for a coach to watch happen than
How do you achieve that state of mind?
I've tried a lot of things to draw the players out and make
them more mindful. For instance, on road trips I hand out
philosophical books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance and Way of the Peaceful Warrior. But it isn't
always an easy sell. One time, instead of flying, we rented a
bus to travel from Seattle to Portland. I wanted the players
to soak up the scenery and achieve a different state of mind.
Most of them fell asleep.
What are your players supposed to get out of this altered consciousness?
They learn how to subjugate themselves to the needs of the
team. Back in the late Eighties I used to remind Michael
Jordan that as many great scoring games as he had, he still
sometimes ended up coming out on the losing end, because he
would try to beat the other team by himself. Even though he
could pull it off occasionally, we weren't going to win
consistently until the other players on our team started
I think that culminated in the final game of our first
championship against the Lakers in 1991. In the fourth
quarter the whole L.A. team was collapsing around Michael. In
the huddle, I kept encouraging him to fan the ball to
[teammate] John Paxson on the perimeter. Michael then did
something that perhaps he had never been asked to do before:
not make a spectacular play but make the common, simple play.
He went back onto the floor, drew the defense, and kicked the
ball out to Paxson, who made the winning shot for the
championship. That's really been our key to success over the
But how do you motivate a superstar like Jordan to work for
the good of the team?
When anybody gets into management, you have to know which
side of a person to appeal to. You can appeal to a
materialistic side, or you can appeal to something more
spiritual. I focus on the spiritual side. Even for people who
don't consider themselves spiritual in a traditional,
religious way, you need to convince them that creating any
kind of team is a spiritual act. People have to surrender
their own egos, so that the end result is bigger than the sum
of its parts.
You also have to explain that a team needs its members to
grow. The ball is like a microphone or a spotlight--the more
it's in your hands, the less anybody else has a chance to
shine. But if you start sharing it, others will contribute.
If you can't live with that, you'll never win a championship.
Isn't there a bit more to it than that?
Of course. You have to create a balance between structure and
freedom. You need structure to give your people a foundation
so they aren't lost at sea. For instance, our triangle
offense puts three players in a particular place on the
floor. But you have to make sure everyone has the freedom to
act. In this offense, the cuts and passes aren't programmed.
You have to know instinctively where everyone else is going
to go. This gets everyone involved, and the players end up
working like five fingers on a hand.
How do you manage that kind of freedom?
In 1992, the year after our team won its first championship,
the players would often just take off on their own and use
their instincts to win games. I simply wasn't going to pull
in the reins by telling them how to run the offense. I just
sat back sometimes on the bus going to the airport, talking
about how amazing it was that they'd found another way to do
it again tonight. My trainer would turn to me and say: "Boy,
if you only had a jar, you could bottle this elixir that this
team runs on and store it for a rainy day."
PHOTO (COLOR): To get superstars to act like team players,
the Bulls' Jackson appeals to their spiritual side.