12 minute read – Posted by – September 23, 2020

Coaching Lessons from Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls, and the World of Basketball

Great managers are made, not born

What can the Chicago Bulls dynasty (as featured in the Netflix documentary The Last Dance), legendary coach Phil Jackson and the sport of basketball teach us about coaching and organizational culture at companies? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Our own Maxime Parmentier, Senior Developer at 7Geese, recently shared these thoughts during a virtual lunch-and-learn with our team. We enjoyed the lessons so much that we thought we should share the key takeaways and learnings from his presentation. Here, Max shares his insights in his own words. 

Teamwork, strategy, and Eleven Rings to rule them all

When the Toronto Raptors won the championship last year, my wife and I started to follow them and I realized I really enjoy the game of basketball. It’s very fast. A lot of times, games can change very quickly. You can be leading by 10 points and then a couple of minutes later, you can be down by 10 points. And there’s a lot of teamwork and strategy, which is one thing I really enjoy. 

A couple months ago when Netflix released The Last Dance, I was quite excited. It’s a dramatic documentary series following Michael Jordan during his star seasons with the Chicago Bulls. I was interested to see how a team could win six NBA championships in eight years.

The person behind all of those wins is Phil Jackson, the coach. He won two championships as a player and went on to win six championships with the Chicago Bulls and five more coaching the LA Lakers. I decided to read his book “11 Rings: The Soul of Success,” where he describes his coaching philosophy. When I was reading the book, I could not stop thinking about how much the coaching of a basketball team is so close to the coaching of a project team. So I present to you five key takeaways from The Last Dance and 11 Rings. 

Lesson #1: Investing in your skills will lead to wins 

Before their dynasty years, between 1988 and 1990, the Chicago Bulls were eliminated three times in a row in the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons.The Pistons were nicknamed the “Bad Boys,” because they were a very physical team and very aggressive. After so many eliminations, Jordan had had enough. He started working out the very next day after the third elimination and in the next two months he put on 15 pounds of muscle to better improve his physicality. The best player in the world dedicated his off-season to becoming even better, to overcome the challenges he faced. 

These days, you can see that spirit alive in most professional teams. Pro sports teams have an entourage composed of experts and trainers. The Raptors, for example, have seven assistant coaches, six trainers, and three scouts. It’s a huge operation. As a result, over the last few years, the average skills and athleticism of professional athletes has dramatically increased. They will even pay attention to the sleep patterns of athletes. 

In sport and with work, marginal gains can make a really big difference.

Lesson #2: Championships are a team effort

One key thing that Phil Jackson brought to the Chicago Bulls was selflessness. While the Bulls were eliminated three times by the Pistons, Michael Jordan was already the best player in the league. He was winning scoring titles and MVP trophies. But he couldn’t lead the team to a championship on his own.

The team was relying so heavily on Michael Jordan that it actually became quite easy to defend him. The Pistons had a strategy called the “Jordan rules” where they were playing super tough and physically, to prevent him scoring points. When Phil Jackson was hired as coach, he decided to shake things up and add systems that took advantage of the space created by teams triple-teaming Michael Jordan. And the team really liked it because it was democratic and created shots for everyone, not just the superstar. But it meant that Phil Jackson had to get Michael Jordan on board. 

Before long, Michael came to understand that to win takes a team effort — and that’s why they started winning championships. 

As somebody working at or leading a company or team, you want to make sure that it’s not just one team member that possesses the skills and knowledge. You need to be able to share the knowledge across a team. It’s very important in professional development to make sure that  everybody has equal opportunity for development and for sharing responsibilities, because that’s how you stay competitive.

Lesson #3: The best performers need to be constantly challenged to meet their potential

Jordan was such a great athlete, but his secret weapon was his mind. He was convinced that he was the best and would do everything to stay the best. Regularly, he would pick an opposing player, create some friction between them and try to dominate him. The challenge and drama he created between him and his opponent allowed him to rise to the occasion every game. His adversaries and even his teammates agree, he could be a jerk. But challenging one’s self was a lesson he would pass along to his teammates to encourage them to get better too. To work harder in practice and to make the key shots when the game was on the line. 

You can empower your teammates by simply trusting them during key moments to take the important shots. As a coach, you can empower and inspire them to take responsibility and continually improve. When you do, there are even more opportunities to celebrate wins together. 

Lesson #4: Have a long term vision and achieve short term results 

During their respective dynasties, both the Bulls and the Lakers would have huge media pressure. To keep their focus, Phil Jackson would close the facilities so that practices would be a safe place for the team. That focus was much-needed because even when you win the championship, you still need to be able to focus on what’s coming. You need to keep evolving. You need to keep things interesting. And so Phil Jackson would define a vision for each year and each game. 

This simple Philosophy (forgive the pun) works with project teams too. In fact, it looks a lot like the OKRs (objectives and key results) methodology we like to follow. Establish a longer term vision and determine what the objectives and key outcomes are for the short term, so the team has their eyes on the prize, but they will also be encouraged by all of the smaller wins along the way. 

Lesson #5: Recognize when your people need support or a break 

After winning three championships with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan famously gave up the sport of basketball after the death of his father. He decided to go into minor league baseball, where he played for 18 months, just to try something different. And then he came back to the NBA where he won three more titles with the Chicago Bulls. 

Burnout can happen to anyone, even the best in the world. Another example of that is with Dennis Rodman, a key defensive member of the Bulls during their 97/98 season. He requested and was granted permission to go on a 48 hour vacation during the season. He just needed to blow off some steam. And so it was granted to him and he went to Vegas and partied like crazy. What happens in Vegas, etc. It was a shocking move for an NBA coach to allow this, but it was in step with what Phil Jackson understood about what his (very unique) player needed. Rodman came back, he remained loyal to Jackson and the Bulls and helped them win their sixth championship. 

I think the lesson here is that you need to take care of your people but you cannot coach everybody the same way. You need to realize that as a coach or as a mentor you need to adapt your coaching to your player. Phil Jackson realized that he could not coach Dennis with the same traditional coaching approach because he understood that from time-to-time, he had to let Dennis Rodman loose. And Dennis would come back energized — Phil found a way to keep Dennis engaged and motivated to put in the work. 

Great managers are made, not born

Managers are the glue that hold teams together. By making managers stronger, you make everyone stronger.

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Maxime Parmentier

Senior Developer at 7Geese