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Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.

The Zen Christian Master

After coaching an NBA team to the championship for the tenth time, Phil Jackson said, "I wasn't at the stage of my life where I could get out and do the things I had done 10 years ago or 15 years ago to push a team...And they pushed themselves and I really feel strongly that this is about them." It's wise for any winning coach to give the team credit. However, Jackson is a master at creating a team that pushes itself.

When he joined the coaching staff of the Chicago Bulls in 1987, Jackson had already spent years studying Zen and Christian spirituality, and he wanted to put into practice his "grand scheme" for coaching: "My goal was to find a structure that would empower everybody on the team, not just the stars, and allow the players to grow as individuals as they surrendered themselves to the group effort." This was a huge challenge when dealing with multi-million dollar salaried, aggressive, and highly individualistic young athletes. As Jackson saw it, any attempt to cater to the players, to talk to them in their own language, would fail. He had seen other coaches try and "inevitably end up feeling as if they're being held hostage by the players they're supposed to be leading." Jackson made the Bulls speak his language, surrender their own assumptions about basketball, and buy into his belief system.

Besides changing the Bull's playing strategy and laboriously training them in the triangle offense, Jackson asked his players for full commitment to his moral system, at least when they were working with him. He began the early team meetings with a discussion of ethics, and they practiced group meditation. Rather than just watching the usual game films, Jackson also showed Hollywood films to break up the heavy criticism with humor. He gave homework in the form of reading assignments, novels and essays that he felt fit the personalities of his players. In describing his approach, Jackson said that it "embodied the Zen Christian attitude of selfless awareness. In essence, the system was a vehicle for integrating mind and body, sport and spirit."

When he took his philosophy to the Lakers, one of his players said: "He has this way of getting you to give yourself to something you never thought of before. We do Tai Chi and yoga and meditate. I never did these things before, never thought of them. And maybe there's no direct correlation between these things and basketball. But it broadens our horizons. It challenges us." Jackson coached Kobe Bryant from a demanding superstar who pushed other players to become a giving leader others wanted to follow.

I don't think others can or even should imitate Jackson's practices. They are an expression of his deep beliefs, experience and hard work. But all team leaders can and should develop their own philosophies of leadership, based on their own vision and values, as long as the purpose is like Jackson's: to create a team that pushes itself to victory.

By Michael Maccoby

 |  June 15, 2009; 2:14 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The Spirituality of Team Work | Next: Winning is a Not a Formula


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I hope phil retires on this high note and rest his hips.

Posted by: yarbrougharts | June 17, 2009 10:00 PM
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