Eleven Rings: How to Lead Top 0.1% Teams

eleven rings book cover

“Eleven Rings” shares the insider story of some of how it’s like to be the leader of the best basketball teams and talents of all time: Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Kobe’s Lakers just two name two.
It’s from the perspective of the most successful NBA coach of all times: Phil Jackson.

Bullet Summary

  • Love -the bond of brotherhood- is what makes winning possible
  • Distributing leadership is what makes you a great leader
  • Not intervening is sometimes the very best you can do

Eleven Rings Summary

Chapter 1: THE CIRCLE OF LOVE

Phil says the circle of love is the secret sauce that takes teams from a bunch of individuals to a cohesive winning team.

Of course, the author clarifies, it’s not about romantic love, and not even brotherly love. What Phil refers to is the emotional connection that ties the warriors together in the heat of battle.
That kind of bond, of being willing to take a hit for a comrade, is critical to success.

Many other factors matter says Phil, like for example talent, intelligence, toughness and even luck. But without love none of those factors matter.

Phil quotes Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright in their five stages of tribal development, which are:

  • STAGE 1 – Despair, hostility, and the belief that “life sucks.”
  • STAGE 2 – Apathetic players perceiving themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic. The mind-set is “my life sucks.”
  • STAGE 3 – Focused on individual achievement and a mindset that “I’m great (and you’re not).” The tribe is a tribe of “lone warriors”
  • STAGE 4 – Pride of belonging to the tribe and a belief that “we’re great (and they’re not). It requires an enemy, and the more powerful the enemy, the more powerful the tribe;
  • STAGE 5 – A sense of innocent wonder and the mindset that “life is great.” (Chicago Bulls during 1995–98)

Chapter 2: THE JACKSON ELEVEN

Phil Jackson says that the principles of leadership he used are quite simple:

1. LEAD FROM THE INSIDE OUT

Some coaches look at what try new hip techniques to gain an edge.

That’s outside-in strategy and, he says, only works in the short term.
It backfires when players get tired of following orders and when the other teams catch up to your latest tricks.

He says that as long as he spoke from the heart, players would hear him.

2. BENCH THE EGO

Phil says that the most common type of coaching in the NBA are domineering or pandering to their stars and treating them like friends.
But the more he tried to exercise power in a direct way, the less effective and powerful he was.

What worked instead was distributing power as much as he could while still keeping final authority.

And he let go of his ego.

He wanted an environment in which everyone had a leadership role, however small that could be (also read Principles: Life and Work).
Just as a note, this does not mean being a pushover.

Learn to let go of your ego:

3. LET PLAYERS DISCOVER OWN DESTINY

Phil says you can’t force people to change, but you have to inspire them to want to change.

Phil wasn’t even interested on getting players to do as he said, he wanted them to think on their own so they could make their own decisions during the game.
And he encouraged players to find themselves and find their own specific qualities (read The Gifts of Imperfection).

4. THE ROAD TO FREEDOM IS A BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM

Phil talks about the triangle offense system in basketball.

He says the beauty of the system is that every players counts and you can’t simply rely on the superstar to do something.

It gives everyone enough freedom to express themselves within a well defined structure.

5. TURN THE MUNDANE INTO THE SACRED

The son of two extremely religious pastors, Phil observed the communities they were able to create with faith and religion.

He learned early what it means to connect people together and with something greater than themselves.

Over the course of the book, Phil talks about the sacred he created to infuse practices and games with a sense of the sacred.

6. ONE BREATH = ONE MIND

Phil used meditation both in his life and with his teams.

Specifically, he had introduced with the Bull mindfulness meditation and having the players sit together in silence and breathing together in sync.

7. THE KEY TO SUCCESS IS COMPASSION

The author says that kind and thoughtful words have transformative effects, even with the apparent toughest men.

He says the day Michael Jordan realized he needed to get to know his teammate was also the day he became a compassionate leader, which in turn helped me take the Bulls to where they got.

Also read Daring Greatly for more on compassion.

8. LOOK AT THE SPIRIT, NOT AT THE SCOREBOARD

A great team spirit is the key to the scoreboard, not the other way around.

9. SOMETIMES YOU PULL THE BIG STICK

Phil says he used many tricks to raise the players’ game and level of consciousness. Including tough ones.

10. WHEN IN DOUBT, DO NOTHING

Sometimes focusing on something completely different than your current problem is the best way to solve that problem.

11. FORGET THE RING

Obsessing on winning is a loser’s game, says Phil.

We should focus instead on creating all the conditions for success and then letting go of the outcome.

What matters is playing the right way and growing, as human beings and as players. Then the final win takes care of itself (also read sometimes you win sometimes you learn)

Obsessing on winning is a loser’s game

Chapter 3: RED

In this chapter Phil Jackson focuses on his past as a player in the Knicks. If you’re into basket it’s interesting and I inivite you to check the book.

Chapter 4: THE QUEST

Phil talks about how he got into Zen and meditation and the power of beginner’s mind.

Suzuki teaches to meditate sitting with a straight spine, relaxed shoulder and chin pulled in as if you wanted to support the sky with your head.
Then focus on your breath in and out. Don’t try to stop thoughts, but let them come and go and then go back to focusing on your breath.

Let your thoughts come and go naturally.
They will become less and less intense and will have less and less power over your conscious mind.
Meditation helps you clear your mind and fully focus on what you need to focus on, without any distraction in the background.

Phil says that it took him years of practice, but eventually the more aware he started to be about what was going on within him, the more he became connected to the world outside.

He became calmer and more patient, qualities that helped him immensely as a coach.
The aspects of Zen that have been critical to Phil Jackson are:

1. GIVING UP CONTROL

If you want to obtain perfect calmness you cannot be bothered by what’s going on in your mind.

Let the thoughts come and go, and they will be under your control.

Similarly, to control people, the biggest mistake is to try to control them directly.
Give them lots of room instead, even encourage them to be mischievous and then watch them.

The author says that was really helpful when dealing with Dennis Rodman.

2. TRUSTING THE MOMENT

Zen helped Phil focus on the moment without distraction from the past or the future, slowing down the way he experienced time and becoming more aware of the present.

3. LIVING WITH COMPASSION

Phil says he was particularly attracted to the Buddhist tenet of compassionate life.

Particularly, there was a key thought that became a building block of his work as a coach, and it was:

“what you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.”

Chapter 5: DANCES WITH BULLS

The “Jordan Rules” is how the Pistons stopped Michael Jordan.

It worked by attacking him with multiple players any time he had the ball. Here’s a video:

https://youtu.be/p2v0LOhjsJs?t=43

The author says he was looking for a system that had the ball move around in a selfless fashion, and ended up using the triangle offense to reach that goal.

Phil sees the triangle as a system that develops as the game unfolds, “in the moment”.

The road to freedom is a beautiful system

The system has many upsides, including:

Hard to play against

The triangle was hard to play against and to prepare against because, well.. Not even the players themselves knew what was going to happen.

Depersonalize criticism 

It allows coaches to criticize the play, not the players.
He was interested the players all understood the basics of the system, and every critique and feedback was about that, not about the player.

Distributed Leadership

The group, as a whole, had a purpose and each player was an important part of the system.

The players began teaching one another, and that formed a stronger bond that that no individual glory moment could ever foster.

Phil Jackson says that Jordan at the beginning was working solo a bit too often and that he had to emulate Magic or Bird instead in working with the rest of the team. He has a great quote from Red Holzman:

“the real mark of a star was how much better he made his teammates.”

Chapter 6: WARRIOR SPIRIT

Jordan didn’t love give the ball away more often.

But when he realized Phil wasn’t going to back down, he started looking for ways to make the system work to make him win. Exactly what Phil wanted.

To be precise, Phil Jackson wasn’t looking for a totally selfless team where everyone is equal and there is no space for creativity.
He was looking for a middle way between systems and space for personal creativity.

Once the Bulls hit that middle spot they took off.

Bull’s Leadership

Phil Jackson thought Jordan didn’t really have the magnetic personalities of Larry Bird or Magic Johnson.

Jordan was not a natural leader, he was a natural doer who pushed the team with his will and with the high demands he placed on everyone around him.

The team needed someone else to balance Jordan’s perfectionism, so Phil named Bill Cartwright as cocaptain. Bill wasn’t afraid to stand up to Jordan.

Bull’s Tribal Initiation

Phil Jackson wanted to give the Bulls a safe environment away from the spotlights.

A place where they could get a sense of oneness  and team spirit.
So he stopped press access to training and started introducing some tribal customs from the Lakota Indian tribe.

Alpha Dog VS Distributed Leadership

The tendency for some of us might be to have weak people around us so that we can feel superior and in power.

Phil Jackson surrounded himself with the strongest and most knowledgeable people instead and then giving them space to contribute.
Obviously, Phil had a Growth Mindset.
Read here on how to get a growth mindset.

Chapter 7: HEARING THE UNHEARD

Phil often reminded the team to focus on the journey rather than on the end destination.

Each game had to be meaningful for them in light of what they were trying to do as a team.

Phil Jackson also describes in this chapter how the work of Carl Rogers inspired him during this period.

Rogers helped his clients more on growing personally than on solving their specific problems.
He says that unless we accept ourselves first it’s impossible to change and to accept others.

And that’s exactly what he tried to foster as a coach: an environment where players can be and express themselves creatively within a team structure.

Haters and Team Chemistry

A great challenge for coaches is to stop the players who dislike you from corrupting the rest and undermining the team chemistry.
He quotes Casey Stengen:

“the secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.

I have seen a few teams and small companies crash and burn because discontent spread like a virus.
As Greene says in the 33 Strategies of War, you’re better off eliminating these people.

Knowing the Players

Another great insight from Eleven Rings is that Phil Jackson made it a point to get to know his players.

He’d ask questions such as “what’s your greatest aspiration”, “whose influence you the most” or “what’s something people don’t know about you”.

He’d have them fill questionnaire or used psychological tests such as the “social bull’s eye” to assess how players felt in relation to others.

Phil also mentions he never figured out a way to heal the wounds of players whom didn’t feel part of the team for getting little playing time.

Talking to Jordan

To get Jordan on board with his plans Jackson would not force anything on him.

He would treat him as a partner and ask him questions to switch his point of view. He’d ask how that strategy could improve the team, what would Scottie or Horace feels about it.

When he let Jordan solve the problems and answer the questions by himself, he’d be more likely to buy into the solution (the “rule of involvement” as explained by Kurt Mortensen in Maximum Influence. Also read How to Win Friends).

Preparing for Matches: Meditation

Jackson says that back then most coaches prepared players for matches by exciting them and revving them up. But he realized he’d have a harder time staying focused and effective under pressure. So he did the opposite: he would calm players down.
To do so he’d use mindful meditation.

Relating to Players with Compassion

Phil Jackson tried an old technique called “whipping boy”.

The “whipping boy” technique uses a single player for most of the criticism to motivate the rest of the team to bond together.

Jackson understood the whipping boy stratagem was a losing one and constructive criticism, respect and compassion were the way to go.

Chapter 8: A QUESTION OF CHARACTER

Did it get harder as a winning team?

When it came to group cohesion, yes.

Once the spotlight turned on the Bulls, the team started vying for more attention and some players started getting jealous of Michael Jordan’s fame and media attention.

As Michael Jordan said “success turn we’s back into me’s”.

Chapter 9: BITTERSWEET VICTORY

Phil Jackson talks here about the rise of Scottie Pippen as a player and as a leader.

Scottie was more human than Michael, better at relating with other players.

He says that in every successful team he’s coached, players had a clear idea of their role in the team. Having a clear structure helps reduce the players’ anxiety and stress because there’s no need jostle around for power and positions.

My Note:
Simon Sinek similarly says that when there’s internal accord and a supportive leadership than the tribe can focus on beating the external enemies (Leaders Eat Last).

Chapter 10: WORLD IN FLUX

Phil Jackson talks here about mindfulness.

It says it means “coming back to the present moment”, an act which is not only limited to meditation itself, but should take place all day long.

Dealing With Player Mutiny

Scottie Pippen famously refused to go back in the game once.

Phil stayed focused in the moment and looked for another player to take the shot instead of Pippen.
He then didn’t let the situation pan out without injecting his ego an escalating.
Pippen understood and the issue was behind them.

Chapter 11: BASKETBALL POETRY

Phil Jacksons say he’s often asked about the 95-96 Bulls.

And he says that the secret is that that team reached the stage 5 “life is great” mindset.
They were playing to enjoy the game itself and they were in a competition with themselves only.

Dealing With Rebels

How do you handle rebels like Dennis Rodman?

Phil says Dennis tried to buck the system, sometimes in small and childish ways, like showing up with an untied shoe or hiding some jewelry.

Sometimes Phil would make a joke, giving him a small fine or simply ignore it.
And once Dennis realized nobody was interested in his little push backs, he stopped.

My Note:
This highlighted the psychological need of some people to stand up to authority just for the sake of not following orders. Once you ignore, the issue often goes away as they don’t feel pressured anymore.

Standing Up to Bully

Jackson mentions the fight of Jordan vs Kerr.

He says that after he had stood up to Jordan, Jordan looked at him differently and never picked on him anymore. And he started trusting him on the court more as well.

My Note: This highlights again the importance of standing up to bullies (see an example here on: how to deal with an alpha male handshake)

Give Credit for Devotion

Phil Jackson quotes Liu Bang on the importance of giving credit to the players.

He says he would put players in the position to fully realize their potentials and then give them credits for their achievements.
Then, like the grass grows toward the sun, the players would sprout towards the coach in devotion.

Finding Courage: The Winning Team Secret

In one of Jackson’s best seasons, the most significant match for him was a loss against a weaker team.

Instead of conceding defeat, they rallied and caught up.

They lost in the end by a few points, but realized that no matter how dire the situation, they could find in their heart the courage and the strength to turn the situation around.
That game, he says, the Bulls found their heart.

Chapter 12: AS THE WORM TURNS

Phil starts the chapter with a Zen quote:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Which is just another way of repeating a key tenet in Eleven Rings: focus on the task at hand, don’t get lost in the past and don’t worry about the future.

Chapter 13: THE LAST DANCE

Phil Jackson describes here the emotional last dance with the Bulls.

Chapter 14: ONE BREATH, ONE MIND

The author says it’s often a not easy task to foster oneness in popular sports.

It’s a universe that often encourages egoistic behavior and stardom mentality.
He says it was even more so in LA, the city of the glorified self.

Chapter 15: THE EIGHTFOLD OFFENSE

Rick, one of the players, said that Phil took a lot of pressure off from the team by putting that pressure onto himself instead.

He’d get cities railed up against him, raise a s*it storm, and the press wouldn’t be thinking about the players.

My Note:
This was a strategy later also used by football coach Jose Marino, albeit the guy after starting with a bang later slipped into anonymity. 

Kobe Bryant: The First Mindset

Phil says that his approach with Kobe was to be as direct as possible and doing so in front of everyone.

He was playing the bad cop and then use one of his coaches to mellow the player later on.

When Kobe said he’d like to be captain as soon as possible, Phil replied that you can’t be a captain if nobody follows you. And back then, nobody was with Kobe.

Eventually, it sank in and Kobe started looking for ways to play more collaboratively, culminating with his Alley-Oop for Shaq:

You can’t be captain if nobody follows you

Chapter 16: THE JOY OF DOING NOTHING

Eleven Rings discusses Kobe and MJ.

Both of them wanted to win at all costs.
However, Michael had to win at everything, while Kobe seemed to compete with himself first and foremost.

Kobe was possibly more difficult to coach though, because his goal was becoming the greatest of all time.
His goal was clear to him, so he didn’t see the point to listen to Phil who told him to cut back on his shots and scoring.

Kobe VS Shaq

The alliance between Shaq and Kobe fell apart when Kobe wanted to be at the helm.
Jackson let it play out until it solved itself.

Chapter 17: ONE-TWO-THREE—LAKERS!

Phil says that trying to repeat a winning formula is a mistake many do.

Instead, the key to a successful run is to keep growing into the unknown and evolving.

Chapter 18: THE WISDOM OF ANGER

Chapter 18 starts with a quote from the Buddah:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned

Phil says that the more freedom he gave Kobe, the more combative he became.

Jackson would later understand that Kobe took his laissez faire approach as indifference. And while in the past he had been passive aggressive, now he was openly aggressive.
Phil says he realized there wasn’t much he could do to change his behavior, so he focused on dealing with his own anger in reacting to Kobe’s anger outbursts.

My Note:
I wished here he gave more practical examples and more factual stories.
But I felt like Jackson had made a leadership mistake here. By allowing Kobe to run slipshod, Jackson was showing weakness.
He was communicating he wasn’t strong enough to stand up to Kobe, and people don’t like weak leaders.

Don’t Hide Anger

Phil says we’re wrong trying to eliminate anger as if it were a flow.

The more you hide it, the more it will come out bursting later on.
It’s better learning how it affects you.

And then learn to channel its energy for sustained focus and creative energy.

Also read Relentless by Tim Grover on how anger can put you in the flow and “Flow” for getting yourself into a state of flow.

Chapter 19: CHOP WOOD, CARRY WATER

Phil says the key to being successful in NBA is to:

  • Control emotions
  • keep your focus during games
  • play through pain
  • find your place in the team
  • stay cool under pressure
  • stay balanced during big wins and big losses
  • perform consistently

Reading that list, it’s a lot to do with emotional intelligence (read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman).

Chapter 20: DESTINY’S CHILDREN

Phil says, there’s nothing like a humiliating defeat to focus the mind.

To him it means reaching that stage of deep camaraderie arising when a group commits to something greater than themselves, no matter the risks standing in the way.

It involves covering teammates’ mistakes and weaknesses and even fouling when necessary to protect a friend.

There’s nothing like a humiliating defeat to focus the mind

Kobe Transformation

Phil says that during this season Kobe transformed from a selfish player into a leader that, finally, teammates wanted to follow.

The key, says Phil, was to learn that to get from his teammates, Kobe had to learn to give.

To learn how to get, you need to learn how to give

Chapter 21: DELIVERANCE

Kobe says he learned hugely from Phil.

He learned to be present and enjoying the moments as they come. And he learned to lead his two daughters as well.

Letting them develop and explore at their own pace without forcing anything on them, but nurturing and guiding them along.

Chapter 22: THIS GAME’S IN THE REFRIGERATOR

The last chapter is about Phil’s last season.

He felt it was a mistake having stayed one more year and he talks about the importance of letting go of losses.

Drawing again from Zen’s teachings, Phil suggests that we should not resist losses.
The best way of coping with them instead is becoming an active participant in them. Instead of only seeking gain and happiness, we must accept losses as well.

Lastly, Phil says that the main message he wants to share with Eleven Rings is to see yourself as something bigger than yourself. Something going beyond the confines of your ego and embrace instead something that “includes everything”.

What we resist persists

eleven rings book cover

Practical Applications

Coaches, managers and leaders can learn a lot. I would say the most important takeaways are:

  • Distribute leadership
  • Check your ego at the door
  • Foster an environment for growht
  • Be compassionate

CONS

A few more specific example of players rebellions and how he handled in the specific situations would have been nice (The Power Moves is all about specific situations and example, which I believe are the best way to learn).

Eleven Rings Review

“Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” is a great book.

Absolutely recommended for anyone in any coaching or trainer position. And especially good for leaders leading highly driven and talented individuals.

I particularly liked the behind the scene and the focus on Phil’s own personal growth via philosophy and meditation.

His approach of focusing on creating the conditions for success and then letting go of the outcome is also particularly inspiring (as opposed to a more “the result is all that matter” approach as in Extreme Ownership).

Get Eleven Rings on Amazon

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