Zen and the Art of Teamwork

Lieber, Ron; Rao, Rajiv M.
Vol.132 No.13
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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 anything else. 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 helping us. 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 years. 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.