Several years ago journalist Sebastian Junger embedded himself with a platoon of American soldiers stationed in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan to learn what enabled these incredibly brave young men to fight in such horrifying conditions. What he discovered, as chronicled in his book War, was that the courage needed to engage in battle was indistinguishable from love. Because of the strong brotherhood the soldiers had formed, they were more concerned about what happened to their buddies than about what happened to themselves.
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.
In their groundbreaking book, Tribal Leadership, management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out the five stages of tribal development, which they formulated after conducting extensive research on small to midsize organizations. Although basketball teams are not officially tribes, they share many of the same characteristics and develop along much the same lines: STAGE 1—shared by most street gangs and characterized by despair, hostility, and the collective belief that “life sucks.” STAGE 2—filled primarily with apathetic people who perceive themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, with the mind-set that “my life sucks.” Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip. STAGE 3—focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto “I’m great (and you’re not).” According to the authors, people in organizations at this stage “have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors.’” STAGE 4—dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that “we’re great (and they’re not).” This kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe. STAGE 5—a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.” (See Bulls, Chicago, 1995–98.)
I can’t pretend to be an expert in leadership theory. But what I do know is that the art of transforming a group of young, ambitious individuals into an integrated championship team is not a mechanistic process. It’s a mysterious juggling act that requires not only a thorough knowledge of the time-honored laws of the game but also an open heart, a clear mind, and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit.
1. LEAD FROM THE INSIDE OUT
2. BENCH THE EGO
I’ve taken a different tack. After years of experimenting, I discovered that 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.
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.
I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.
4. THE ROAD TO FREEDOM IS A BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM
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
At the start of training camp, for instance, we used to perform a ritual that I borrowed from football great Vince Lombardi. As the players formed a row on the baseline, I’d ask them to commit to being coached that season, saying, “God has ordained me to coach you young men, and I embrace the role I’ve been given. If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching, as a sign of your commitment, step across that line.” Wonder of wonders, they always did it.
6. ONE BREATH = ONE MIND
All I could do was laugh. Though mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism, it’s an easily accessible technique for quieting the restless mind and focusing attention on whatever is happening in the present moment.
Another aspect of Buddhist teachings that has influenced me is the emphasis on openness and freedom. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki likened the mind to a cow in a pasture. If you enclose the cow in a small yard, it will become nervous and frustrated and start eating the neighbor’s grass. But if you give it a large pasture to roam around in, it will be more content and less likely to break loose.
7. THE KEY TO SUCCESS IS COMPASSION
8. KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE SPIRIT, NOT ON THE SCOREBOARD
Paradoxically, by 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.
9. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO PULL OUT THE BIG STICK
Sometimes no matter how nice a guy you are, you’re going to have to be an asshole. You can’t be a coach if you need to be liked.”
10. WHEN IN DOUBT, DO NOTHING
“The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere or, perhaps better yet, not overtaxed at all.”
11. FORGET THE RING
The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way.
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.
This forced me to start thinking of the game as a strategic problem rather than a tactical one. As a young player, you tend to focus most of your attention on how you’re going beat your man in any given game. But now I began to see basketball as a dynamic game of chess in which all the pieces were in motion. It was exhilarating.
I’d read Shunryu Suzuki’s classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki, a Japanese teacher who played a key role in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West, talked about learning to approach each moment with a curious mind that is free of judgment. “If your mind is empty,” he writes, “it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki’s instructions on how to meditate are simple: Sit with your spine straight, your shoulders relaxed, and your chin pulled in, “as if you were supporting the sky with your head.” Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door. Don’t try to stop your thinking. If a thought arises, let it come, then let it go and return to watching your breath. The idea is not to try to control your mind but to let thoughts rise and fall naturally over and over again. After some practice, the thoughts will start to float by like passing clouds and their power to dominate consciousness will diminish.
Three aspects of Zen have been critical to me as a leader: 1. GIVING UP CONTROL
The best way to control people, he adds, is to give them a lot of room and encourage them to be mischievous, then watch them. “To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy,” he writes. “The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”
2. TRUSTING THE MOMENT
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “dwelling happily in the present moment,” because that’s where everything you need is available. “Life can be found only in the present moment,” he writes. “The past is gone, and the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”
3. LIVING WITH COMPASSION
In the Buddhist view, the best way to cultivate compassion is to be fully present in the moment. “To meditate,” said the Buddha, “is to listen with a receptive heart.” In her book Start Where You Are, Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron contends that meditation practice blurs the traditional boundaries between self and others. “What you do for yourself—any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself—will affect how you experience the world,” she writes. “What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.”
The triangle gets its name from one of its key features—a sideline triangle formed by three players on the “strong” side of the floor. But I prefer to think of the triangle as “five-man tai chi” because it involves all the players moving together in response to the way the defense positions itself. The idea is not to go head to head against the defense but to read what the defense is doing and respond accordingly.
Everybody was reading and reacting to each other. It was a great orchestra.”
The beauty of the system—and this applies to all kinds of systems, not just the triangle—was that it turned the whole team into a learning organization. Everybody from Michael on down had something to learn, no matter how talented or untalented he was.
The system also gave players a clear purpose as a group and established a high standard of performance for everyone. Even more important, it helped turn players into leaders as they began teaching one another how to master the system. When that happened, the group would bond together in ways that moments of individual glory, no matter how thrilling, could never foster.
The Mystic Warrior, a television miniseries about Sioux culture based on the best-selling novel Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebe Hill.
One of the things that intrigued me about Lakota culture was its view of the self. Lakota warriors had far more autonomy than their white counterparts, but their freedom came with a high degree of responsibility. As Native American scholar George W. Linden points out, the Lakota warrior was “the member of a tribe, and being a member, he never acted against, apart from, or as the whole without good reason.” For the Sioux, freedom was not about being absent but about being present, adds Linden. It meant “freedom for, freedom for the realization of greater relationships.”
As the season progressed, I slowly started to introduce the team to some of the tribal customs of the Lakota. Some of these were quite subtle. At the beginning of every practice, we had the core team—players, coaches, and training staff—convene in a circle at center court to discuss our objectives for that day. And we would end practice the same way. Lakota warriors always gathered in circular formations because the circle was a symbol of the fundamental harmony of the universe. As Black Elk, the famed Lakota wise man, explained it: Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are the stars. . . . The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood-to-childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. For the Lakota everything is sacred—including the enemy—because they believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all life. That’s why Lakota warriors didn’t seek to conquer other tribes. They were far more interested in performing acts of bravery, such as counting coup (touching an enemy with a stick), taking part in a raiding party to steal horses, or rescuing a fellow warrior who had been captured. For the Lakota going into battle was a joyful experience, much like playing a game, though the stakes were obviously much higher.
But what I’ve learned over the years is that the most effective approach is to delegate authority as much as possible and to nurture everyone else’s leadership skills as well.
There’s a section in Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book that sums up the kind of group dynamic I was looking for them to create. During the 1990–91 season that became our team motto: Now this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and true as the sky; And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back— For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
At its heart, mindfulness is about being present in the moment as much as possible, not weighed down by thoughts of the past or the future. According to Suzuki-roshi, when we do something with “a quite simple, clear mind . . . our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.”
Harvard Business Review that he said reminded him of me. The article—“Parables of Leadership” by W. Chan Kim and Renée A. Mauborgne—was composed of a series of ancient parables that focused on what the authors called “the unseen space of leadership.”
The master nodded. “To hear the unheard,” he said, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in the people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens.”
But the most effective way to deal with anxiety, I’ve discovered, is to make sure that you’re as prepared as possible for whatever is coming your way. My brother Joe often talks about faith being one of the two things that can help you cope with fear. The other is love. Joe says you need to have faith that you’ve done all you could to make sure things turn out right—regardless of the final outcome.
In The Tao of Leadership, John Heider stresses the importance of interfering as little as possible. “Rules reduce freedom and responsibility,” he writes. “Enforcement of rules is coercive and manipulative, which diminishes spontaneity and absorbs group energy. The more coercive you are, the more resistant the group will become.”
Structure is critical. On every successful team I’ve coached, most of the players had a clear idea of the role they were expected to play. When the pecking order is clear, it reduces the players’ anxiety and stress. But if it’s unclear and the top players are constantly vying for position, the center will not hold, no matter how talented the roster.
I don’t believe in using practice to punish players. I like to make practices stimulating, fun, and, most of all, efficient.
Maslow believed that the highest human need is to achieve “self-actualization,” which he defined as “the full use and exploitation of one’s talents, capacities and potentialities.” The basic characteristics of self-actualizers, he discovered in his research, are spontaneity and naturalness, a greater acceptance of themselves and others, high levels of creativity, and a strong focus on problem solving rather than ego gratification.
By “spiritual” I don’t mean “religious.” I mean the act of self-discovery that happens when you step beyond your routine way of seeing the world. As Maslow puts it, “The great lesson from the true mystics . . . [is] that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.”
The word “mindfulness” has become so diluted in recent years that it’s lost much of its original meaning. It comes from the Sanskrit word smriti, which means “remember.” “Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment,” writes Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
George taught mindfulness as a way of life, what he called “meditation off the cushion.” That meant being fully present not just on the basketball floor but throughout the rest of the day as well. The key, he said, was not just to sit and calm your mind but to learn to read and react effectively in any situation based on what’s happening at that very moment.
“It’s all about being present and taking responsibility for how you relate to yourself and others,” says George. “And that means being willing to adjust so that you can meet people where they are. Instead of expecting them to be somewhere else and getting angry and trying to will them to that place, you try to meet them where they are and lead them where you want them to go.”
There’s a Zen saying I often cite that goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” The point: Stay focused on the task at hand rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. This team was getting very good at doing that.
from 1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing,” writes Chodron. “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
One of the basic principles of Buddhist thought is that our conventional concept of the self as a separate entity is an illusion. On a superficial level, what we consider the self may appear to be separate and distinct from everything else. After all, we all look different and have distinct personalities. But on a deeper level, we are all part of an interconnected whole.
In a nutshell, the Buddha taught that life is suffering and that the primary cause of our suffering is our desire for things to be different from the way they actually are. One moment, things may be going our way, and in the next moment they’re not. When we try to prolong pleasure or reject pain, we suffer. On the bright side, the Buddha also prescribed a practical way for eliminating craving and unhappiness by following what he called the Noble Eightfold Path. The steps were right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
In her book The Zen Leader, Ginny Whitelaw describes how joy arises when people are bound together by a strong sense of connectedness. “This joy may be more subtle than the ‘jump for joy’ variety,” she writes. “It may feel like full engagement in what we do, and a quiet satisfaction arising. It may feel like energy that keeps renewing itself, much as pumping a swing seemingly gives us more energy than it takes.” This kind of joy is contagious and impossible to fake. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle observes: “With enthusiasm you find you don’t have to do it all yourself. In fact, there is nothing of significance you can do by yourself. Sustained enthusiasm brings into existence a wave of creative energy and all you have to do then is ride the wave.”
Winning is about moving into the unknown and creating something new. Remember that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie when someone asks Indy what he’s going to do next, and he replies, “I don’t know, I’m making it up as we go along.” That’s how I view leadership. It’s an act of controlled improvisation, a Thelonious Monk finger exercise, from one moment to the next.
One breath. One mind. One spirit.
Forget mistakes, forget failures, forget everything, except what you’re going to do now and do it. Today is your lucky day. WILL DURANT
Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.
Tucked away in the rear of the room is a small meditation space enclosed by Japanese-style paper screens, where Phil sits zazen most mornings. On one wall hangs a beautiful calligraphic drawing of enso, the Zen symbol of oneness, with these lines from Tozan Ryokai, a ninth-century Buddhist monk: Do not try to see the objective world. You which is given an object to see is quite different from you yourself. I am going my own way and I meet myself which includes everything I meet. I am not something I can see (as an object). When you understand self which includes everything, You have your true way. This is the essence of what we’ve been trying to convey in this book: that the path of transformation is to see yourself as something beyond the narrow confines of your small ego—something that “includes everything.”