observations at the intersection of business innovation, culture, finance, leadership and political economy

Phil Jackson’s Spiritual Mashup

This photo makes me laugh–especially Dennis Rodman, second from left. What a handful. It was taken in 1997 after the Chicago Bulls had won five out of the six NBA championships they would take under Phil Jackson, before he moved on to coach the LA Lakers.

This past weekend I had a conversation with a friend that prompted me to pull Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior off the shelf. He wrote it in 1995, when he was in the middle of his run with the Bulls. It was re-released in 2006, and I read it after that, several years ago.

I’m a rank amateur when it comes to basketball, much as I am with football, but sports’ life lessons always get me and Jackson’s passion, intellect and love of the human spirit do too. I read Sacred Hoops around the time of the financial crisis, and I was struck again, when I skimmed through it over the weekend, by the simple, timeless truths that ground Jackson’s team-building ethos–and at how profoundly relevant they are to business.

All of the basics are here. People are motivated by love of the game and of others–not by fear or by greed. Before a vision can become reality, it must be owned by every single member of the group. Team members must be empowered to make their own decisions. Winning teams take time–sometimes years–to build, form and gel. And there is chaos, change, egos, ethics, anger, stakeholders and superstars.

The basics, for Jackson, are derived from the lessons he’s learned through his own spiritual searchings, from Zen Buddhism–for which he’s now well-known and occasionally mocked, and from a broad swath of other spiritual and intellectual traditions. In Sacred Hoops Jackson ranges far and wide, nodding to Buddhists Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, Pema Chodoron, his Pentecostal upbringing, controversial counterculture hero Carlos Castaneda, Omaha, Hopi and Lakota Native Americans, Antoine de Saint-ExupéryWalt Whitman and Albert Einstein, among others.

That Jackson hit the NBA 20 years ago preaching from this unorthodox, cobbled-together playbook seems almost as unlikely as the incredible path down which it led. The timing of my return to Sacred Hoops was ironic: coinciding with last week’s playoff sweep of the Lakers by Dallas and Jackson’s retirement from coaching.

Despite the ignominious ending to his run–and the on-again and off-again ribbing he has endured over the years–Jackson’s track record bears witness to the power of the teachings he has used to guide his coaching philosophy. And the end underscores the human challenge of sticking with them, season in, season out. It in no way diminishes their power.

In the wake of the financial crisis conversations about the relevance of spiritual teachings to business have become a little more voluble, a little more audible. Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism and all of its derivatives have tendrils of it. Yale University’s Spiritual Capital Initiative–funded by The John Templeton Foundation–is grounded in it.

Faith, spirit and religion are deeply personal, sensitive–and often highly charged–subjects. Introducing them into any context can be fraught. That seems to lead to extremes: avoidance of the subjects at all costs or exclusive congregating of like-minded people. Instead, Jackson’s approach–a mashup, integrating the core virtues and values that run through all traditions–opens the conversation, allows for differences and unleashes these teachings’ power. That feels just about right to me.

Sacred Hoops is a great, quick and inspiring read. I hope Jackson will be lured to New York for one more run with the Knicks. I’d like to see him in action. Meantime, you can see clips here from Jackson’s final press conference last week and pics of Jackson’s limited edition Bulls-Lakers championship adidas sneakers here.

Photo: Anne Ryan, USA Today

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