When Phil Jackson’s leadership book Sacred Hoops came out in 1995, he had already won three championships as the coach of the Chicago Bulls. The book was, in Jackson’s own words, the introduction to an empathy-driven leadership system that could apply equally well to "an NBA champion or a record-setting sales force." The book’s advice would seem to have only grown in credibility in the years since its publication, during which Jackson has won a staggering eight more NBA titles as a coach. He’s considered a master of motivating players, through kindness rather than through fear. He’s helped some of the most talented-but-headstrong basketball figures ever—Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant—break through via mindful attention to feelings and interests, and earn NBA titles through unselfish team play. Jackson believes (not controversially) that only teammates who care about each others’ success on the court as much as their own can succeed in basketball—and business.
But now Jackson has taken on a new and unfamiliar role. Now, he is the president of the New York Knicks. He’ll no longer be working with players every day. Instead, he’ll be in charge of hiring and managing coaches and front office executives and acquiring players—trying to build a winning attitude from the top down. In the parlance of management, you could say that he’s gone from VP to C-suite. How can Phil Jackson, leadership guru help Phil Jackson, Knicks president make this transition?
While Jackson has only been in his position for a few months, he’s already made a few very important moves that might clue us in to the way he’ll handle this new role. The first, in fact, came before he even took the job: he persuaded Knicks owner James Dolan, a notorious meddler, to give him full control over the team’s basketball operations. The way this came about, according to published reports, was quintessential Jackson: he met Dolan on his own terms and waited until Dolan came to believe that giving this power to Jackson was in his own best interest. Dolan considers himself something of a rock ‘n’ roller and a badass; therefore, Jackson communicated with him through legendary music manager Irving Azoff, and conducted a crucial meeting on all-terrain vehicles in the desert outside Palm Springs, California. At the press conference introducing Jackson, Dolan—whose ill-informed busybody micromanaging is, again, legendary—told reporters that he was glad to be handing over power, so he could have time to work on his other business interests. Their contract was said to have taken only 30 minutes to write.
Keeping Dolan at arm’s length is likely to be Jackson’s main challenge on the Knicks, and he appears to have initially approached that challenge in a manner straight out of Sacred Hoops. Where other potential franchise saviors might have tried to leverage Dolan’s clear need for a new direction after a disastrous season for the Knicks, coming at negotiations with a team of lawyers to lock in their authority, Jackson spent long hours socializing with him. Jackson has dealt effectively with erratic characters like Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace as a coach, and this willingness to interact non-judgmentally with notorious figures—a confidence that if two people really get to know each other, they will almost always be able to work together—looks already to have helped him in his new job.
Jackson’s most (and really, only) significant hire so far—bringing on Derek Fisher as head coach—is also in keeping with the Sacred Hoops ethos. Fisher is a former NBA point guard who won five titles with Jackson. He was a good player, but not nearly a dominant one. Point guards are traditionally the on-floor leaders of their teams, but when Fisher played with Kobe Bryant on Jackson’s Lakers, he deferred to the more-proficient Bryant in crucial situations as the team’s primary ball-handler and offensive creator. In this, Fisher acted out the very ideal of a Jackson player: giving up what could, and by some accounts should, have been his due for the good of the larger group.
Fisher has no previous experience as a coach—in fact, he retired as a player to take the Knicks job. Jackson is taking a clear and calculated risk here, betting that Fisher’s credentials as a teammate and leader-by-example are more important than his technical or logistical understanding of the coach’s role. It’s the same kind of free thinking regarding personnel (in addition to his work with black sheep like Rodman and World Peace, Jackson made good use of one of the first big-time European players, Toni Kukoc) that Jackson demonstrated as a coach: acting with, as he puts it several times in Sacred Hoops, an "open heart."
After last night's draft, Jackson discussed his first major player transaction—in which he traded away two veterans—putting as much if not more emphasis on team chemistry as on the on-court roles of the players involved. Jackson’s understanding of the technical side of basketball is at this point unquestionable, but thus far in his presidential tenure he appears to be concerned as much about the personalities of his personnel as he is about their specific skills.
While we’re considering what effect Phil Jackson’s leadership style will have on the NBA, recent NBA events can also teach us a lesson about Phil Jackson’s leadership style. Namely: you don’t have to act like Phil Jackson to get results. Two weeks ago, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich led the Spurs to their fifth NBA championship under his reign—and Popovich is a laconic ex-Navy man known for his impatience with reporters, who has likely never decorated a team facility with Native American spiritual paraphernalia as Jackson has. Meanwhile slick, godfather-like Miami Heat impresario Pat Riley—who recruited LeBron James to South Beach, has seven rings of his own from his time as a coach and executive—is another highly successful modern NBA leader who has never written a book about meditation or the spiritual value of mundane tasks. (In Sacred Hoops, Jackson mentions the importance of paying attention to the garbage while you’re taking it out.)
Jackson, Popovich, and Riley do have one thing in common, though: their players all perform unselfishly and with an obvious love for the game. And if you, the leader or potential leader reading this article, can build an organization of people who root for each other and believe in their work, it ultimately won’t really matter what kind of philosophical references you use along the way.