7 Legendary Leadership Lessons from Phil Jackson’s Coaching Career

By Scott Williams

It was a baffling moment for NBA fans. After the Los Angeles Lakers fired head coach Mike Brown, rumors began to swirl regarding the return of Phil Jackson to the job. Lakers fans were excited; the rest of the NBA Franchises were nervous, at best. That's because Phil Jackson is arguably the best coach to coach any sport, and definitely the best coach that has ever been on the sidelines of a basketball court.

With that being said, the Lakers organization passed on hiring an able and willing-to-come-out-of-retirement Phil Jackson, and went with Mike D’Antoni.

Everyone was shocked, including Phil Jackson himself. The overwhelming support from the Lakers fans, as tangibly inspiring as a crowd wave in a packed stadium, fell flat in bafflement and disappointment. 

 Jackson said, "I am gratified by the groundswell of support from the Laker Fans who endorsed my return and it is the principal reason why I considered the possibility."

 I have always been a fan of Phil Jackson as a coach. I have always admired his style and his cool, calm, collected nature as a coach. He seems to know exactly when to sit, stand, and call a timeout—the small but vital elements for his team's ultimate productivity. Most importantly, Phil maximized the potential of his personnel. The results were championships...of which he has eleven.

What's the secret of his powerhouse leadership? Phil envisions the end destination before he ever gets on the highway. Kurt Rambis, former NBA player and Assistant Coach to Phil Jackson, says it this way:

 "It's a process with Phil. He goes through an entire mental process of envisioning the season and how to get the team to the NBA Finals. It's about winning for him, not just whether he wants to coach."

 A great lesson for leaders is making sure that the destination isn't just the title of leader, or the corner office that comes with it. Real leaders make winning and success the destination.

 Want more from the Phil Jackson School of powerhouse leadership? I knew you would.

 7 Legendary Leadership Lessons From Phil Jackson’s Coaching Career:

1. Willingness To Coach The Best: Phil wasn't scared of coaching the best and showed them how to be even better. His leadership brought out the legendary best from the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Great leaders take on the best, and build a great supporting cast around them. That's how championships are won.

2. Win Without The Coach: Phil prepared his teams in a manner that allowed them to believe in themselves and get it done without his direct supervision. He taught his team how to play through long stretches without timeouts or his direct interaction. He schooled his players more than just execution; he made them great leaders and confident thinkers. Great leaders prepare teams to perform at a high-level, even in the leader's absence.

3. Mastered The 3-Peat: Phil was able to “3-Peat” several times with several teams. He not only won championships, but he did it again and again and again. The one time he didn’t 3-Peat, he just repeated again. He even said it in his closing press conference upon his retirement, that the thrill of chasing the “3-Peat” is always a great challenge. Great leaders don’t want their teams to just win, but to win again and again.

4. Created A Culture Of Winning: Creating a culture of winning comes with extreme give-and-take, strategy, encouragement, and believing in those you lead. It requires taking the best basketball players on the globe, and meshing them role players and players with quirky personalities like Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest. He created a culture of focused chemistry that made all players valuable and maximized potential in everyone. The number-one priority in coaching--and leading--is to create a strong team culture by developing leadership, empowerment, communication, authentic care for others, relationships, trust, and motivation.

5. Cool, Calm and Collected: Phil Jackson was one of the most calm and collected coaches in the game. He would sit on the sidelines, as cool as the other side of the pillow, even under immense pressure. This translated to his team taking on that same persona. Teams feed off of their leader; if their leader demonstrates a “we got this” mentality, it’s destined to rub off on the players.

6. He Knows When It’s His Time: Phil retired into the sunset of Montana to relax for a season. He stated that he has had a good 20-year run of coaching, and now it’s time to give some of the younger coaches an opportunity. Some leaders don’t know when their time has passed, and they make it rough on an entire organization. It’s important to remember, just because you take a pause, a rest, a vacation, or a sabbatical doesn’t mean that you might not have one more run in you at a later date. Know your time. Know your seasons.

7. Great At Selling His Leadership Style To Players: Phil’s style, especially his triangle offense, was not an easy sell. He was able to elevate the importance of his unique style of coaching to a place of relevance so high that the best players to ever play the game, such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, bought into it. If a leader has a style worth its salt, team members will gladly buy in. Phil Jackson never tried to be someone else; take it or leave it, the “Zen Master” was the “Zen Master.”

Great leaders are more focused with making those around them great. Phil Jackson was a great coach and a great leader. Kobe Bryant says it best in this quote, “He’s absolutely brilliant in bringing a group together to accomplish one common goal.”

Share your thoughts on any of these leadership lessons or things that you may have learned from Phil Jackson’s leadership/coaching style. How have you seen these concepts play out in your context?

Author, speaker, ideapreneur and former LifeChurch.tv Pastor Scott Williams currently serves as the Chief Solutions Officer for Nxt Level Solutions, which helps some of the largest churches, non-profits, and Fortune 100 companies harness the power of great ideas. Scott just released his latest book, Go Big – Take Your Life From Ordinary To Extraordinary.

Twitter: @ScottWilliams

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