Hope and Leadership From the Man with Eleven Rings

Hope and Leadership From the Man with Eleven Rings

For some time, I’ve been thinking about the question, “What does success look like?” 

Have you ever thought about that?  We talk about wanting to be successful.  We want our children to be successful. We want to be successful with our jobs. We want to be successful in our relationships.

But the question I ask today is actually focused on what success really means? Also, how do the experiences in our childhood, positive or negative, affect our ability to be successful?

In Phil Jackson's book, “Eleven Rings,” he recounts his days as a player and coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA). He is perhaps most famous for having coached the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and others were playing and then coaching the Los Angeles Lakers during Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s playing days.

He won six championship titles with the Chicago Bulls and five championship titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. He has won more championships than any other coach in NBA history. Championship winners receive championship rings. Hence, the title of his book, “Eleven Rings.”

Rings, as you know, are designed to wear on your fingers. He has more rings than he has fingers! In fact, he won two rings as a player himself, so he actually has 13 rings.  But when you look at his hands, if he were to wear them all, you would instantly and visually understand that he was successful.

He ran what is called a triangle offense which is unusual in today’s league. While I might not understand the triangle offense scheme, what I do understand is that if you work hard and execute the fundamentals, you will be successful.

How do I know? Eleven rings.

When we start delving into the backgrounds of many successful athletes, we are often surprised and dismayed by the stressful and traumatic lives many athletes have endured. On the Chicago Bull’s team, player Dennis Rodman comes to mind.

(A recent example is the sexual abuse suffered by many of the athletes on the women’s USA gymnastics teams in the 1990s through 2010s.)

As the coach, you’re trying to get players to trust you and focus on the fundamentals, when, whether out of safety or necessity, many of these players struggled their whole lives with trusting anyone but themselves.

Can you see the struggle that someone like Phil Jackson must have had? He needed players to work within his framework. In exchange, he promised them great success. However, past experiences informed the team’s current behaviors and expectations.

Most players did not immediately buy into his promise and framework. Why? Because it not only went counter-culture to what every other coach in the NBA was doing, but it required players to be vulnerable, accept mistakes during the learning process, and give up part of themselves for the greater good.

And yet, Phil Jackson said, “Trust me, we are going to win.” And he did. How do I know? Eleven rings.

Towards the end of the book, he makes this statement, “Leadership is not about forcing your will on others, it is about mastering the art of letting go.”  

When we want to be an agent of change, when we want to be somebody that makes a difference in our team's work-life and the lives of the people we serve, are we forcing our will on others, making them accept our goals because we need to be in control, or are we creating a successful future because the team embraces our goal as their own goal?

Can you visualize that level of success? Can you imagine a future of serving others and making a difference in their lives because we let go of our own goals and help them embrace a collective goal as their own?

If you’ve followed some of my recent writings, you’ll remember that I’ve been studying the work of Dr. Chan Hellman of Oklahoma University and the Hope Research Center.

Tying together Jackson’s triangle offense and Hellman’s science of hope may seem like a non sequitur. However, I’d like to suggest that what Jackson was seeking to accomplish was not just a hopeful outcome, but an outcome built on a framework of hope.

When we talk to people, we often hear phrases such as, “I hope it doesn’t rain,” or “I hope things change,” or “I hope Fred brushed his teeth this morning.” Those are all wishes. You have no control over any of them.

Hellman defines hope as the “belief that your future will be better than today, and you have the power to make it so.” 

The hope framework consists of three facets: goals, pathways, willpower.

Goal: Win NBA Championship. Pathway: Effectively run the triangle offense. Willpower: Motivation through envisioning future success and empowering the team.

Hellman says, “Imagination is the instrument of hope.” Being able to create “future memories” (i.e., mental pictures of achieved goals) because of today’s success is a key to achieving your goal, whether big or small.

Have you thought about what success looks like for your office?  What does success look like for your clients? For your colleagues? For yourself? Are you actively engaged in making the future brighter and better than the past?

Being trauma informed is understanding that when people show up in the workplace, they arrive as the sum total of their past experiences. While we may not be able to go back and correct the trauma of their past lives, we certainly have it within our power as leaders to help them create goals and positive experiences that instill hope for a better tomorrow.

In Hellman’s book, Hope Rising, he quotes Frederick Douglass who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Phil Jackson took many men with divergent, and sometimes traumatic, backgrounds and created 11 championship teams. He helped them all imagine not just a hopeful future, but a future built on the framework of hope.

He succeeded beyond all expectations. How do I know?

Eleven rings.

Photo from @PhilJackson11 on Twitter