Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On 'Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success'

Phil Jackson / "The soul of success is surrendering to what is."

For the past two weeks, my bedtime reading has been Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson, written with Hugh Delehanty, that was published earlier this year. It is one of those books that's been a truly wonderful read. It's hard to set it down and I don't want it to end. The book is as much a primer for getting in the mood for the upcoming professional basketball season that starts later this month as it is a memoir with candid insights into the alchemy of leadership.

At more than 300 pages, there's plenty to absorb in Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, and Jackson quotes from the Grateful Dead, William James, Thelonius Monk, Abraham Maslow and Lao-Tzu, among many. The book reflects Jackson's polymathy.

"In the space of a page, he toggles from psychotherapy to Native American customs to Christianity to Buddhism and back to 'two recent studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology'," the New York Times wrote in its review of Eleven Rings.

As those of you who follow American professional basketball know, Jackson enjoyed a storied career as head coach of the NBA's Chicago Bulls (1989-98) and the Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004, 2005-11), and he won more championships -- eleven -- than any coach in the history of professional sports. Delehanty is a former editor for Sports Illustrated, who previously co-authored Jackson's best-selling memoir Sacred Hoops.

Jackson, who grew up the son of Pentecostal preachers in North Dakota, learned the secrets of mindfulness and team chemistry during his playing career with the New York Knicks in the 1970s. Later, as a coach for the Bulls, he managed arguably the greatest basketball player in the world, Michael Jordan, and as coach of the Lakers, Jackson is credited with turning Kobe Bryant into a mature leader of a championship team.

"When you play the game the right
way, it makes sense to the players
and winning is the likely outcome."
~ Phil Jackson
It was in his "quest to reinvent himself," that Jackson became an explorer, learning about humanistic psychology, Native American philosophy and Zen meditation. His approach to leadership was based upon "freedom, authenticity, and selfless teamwork that turned the hyper-competitive world of professional sports on its head." He is not afraid to quote from various religions' holy scriptures.

In teaching his players an abbreviated version of mindfulness meditation that's based on the Zen practice, Jackson writes: "I was interested in getting them to take a more mindful approach to the game and to their relationships with one another. 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."

On winning and losing, Jackson writes: "When you play the game the right way, it makes sense to the players and winning is the likely outcome."

"But there's another kind of faith that's even more important," he adds. "The faith that we're all connected on some level that surpasses understanding. That's why I have players sit together in silence. Sitting silently in a group without any distractions can make people resonate with one another in profound ways. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Invisible threads are the strongest ties'."

At the beginning of each chapter, Jackson shares a quote that illustrates the theme of his message. For instance:

Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.
~ Jim Butcher

The greatest carver does the least cutting.
~ Lao-Tzu

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.
~ Joseph Campbell

Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world.
~ Miyamoto Musashi

In the end, Jackson shares this thought:

"Buddhist sages say that there's only a 'tenth of an inch of difference' between heaven and earth. And I think the same can be said about basketball. Winning a championship is a delicate balancing act, and there's only so much you can accomplish by exerting your will. As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way. But at some point, you need to let go and turn yourself over to the basketball gods.

"The soul of success is surrendering to what is."

One thing that Eleven Rings shows us -- and you don't have to be a fan of basketball or sports to appreciate it -- is this: When it comes to the most important lessons in life, we still have much to learn.

Photos of Phil Jackson and of the cover of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success courtesy of Google images.

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