Summer Book Review #30: Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

“Part of me has been taken away,” shared a bright energetic woman during a 1:1 interview I conducted for Novofemina’s Research Jam.  We had pivoted to her personal story after she had agreed to share some transition observations from a women’s economic development organization where she worked.   A career change. A new husband.  A first child.  Mixed in with these life events I heard isolation and failure, or something that resembled it.  Her reaction?

She explained simply, ‘I went inward.  My confidence eroded.’  Have you ever witnessed this pattern?

The story she shared that morning kept reintroducing itself to me this week as I read, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” by Phil Jackson with Hugh Delehanty.  (2013 Penguin Press)

Who is Phil Jackson you may ask?  He’s a famous NBA basketball coach who happens to hold the record for winning the most championships.   He coached the Chicago Bulls to six championships and the LA Lakers to five.   His run is unprecedented – in fact – sports aficionados would be able to quote all sorts of details from his winning record.


So why this book?  I’ve always heard that Jackson used Buddhism or other non traditional means to engage his players.  I wondered exactly what might be at the core of his off-beat approach and whether it would add anything to my understanding of transition.

The net of it (no pun intended) is that I enjoyed it more than I expected.   Not for the detailed retellings of various championship playoffs.  What captured me was his approach which integrated learnings from across a broad spectrum: Buddhism, Native American tradition, psychology, meditation, and countless others.

If I had to boil it down Jackson is a spiritual person who espouses at his core a ‘connectedness’ to others.   He reasons that hyper-talented superstars are used to accolades and achievement.   Rarely have these players developed skills necessary to understand that they cannot win alone.  Thus Jackson leverages tools like Zen meditation to engage players in the larger pursuit of themselves via connectedness to others thereby enabling even the greatest players to be better.

Long time readers may remember the post Leading with Gratitude.  Jackson’s view is not too far afield.   For transition I took away the following:

  • Integrating our fuller selves:  Jackson shares early, “I believed I had to keep my personal beliefs separate from my professional life.”  He notes that he and his teams really gained traction once he incorporated his fuller self into his professional persona.  The son of ministers from North Dakota, Jackson concludes…”as time went by I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more the players could hear me…” (Eleven, pg 12)  Novofemina has posted on this integration topic before…”Be who you are everywhere – school, work, home, and community.” (Simmons, 2011)
  • Embracing an enemy’s gift:  Jackson shared a Dalai Lama construct called the enemy’s gift  when describing a particularly difficult situation between himself and another coach.  ‘Buddhists think that if someone willfully hurts us it is really a gift that enables us to develop greater compassion for others.  A path to testing our inner strength.’  (Eleven, pg 185).  Interesting.  I’m grateful to have encountered this framework.  Long before my transition a peer of mine decided to go after me and my organization. He was manipulative and aggressive and unproductive.  It ultimately cost him his job.  Not sure that even today I can see this as a gift but now I have a better lens….
  • Trusting silence:  Would you be surprised if Jackson didn’t use rah-rah pep talks in practice sessions or before big games?  He instead had players and coaches sit together in silence.    “At its heart, mindfulness (silence exercise) is about being present in the moment as much as possible, not weighed down by thoughts of the past or the future.”   (Eleven, p 99-102)  How many of us run from silence?  I find that silence is often an unwelcome guest of transition.    To our peril, I’m learning.   “The greatest carver does the least cutting,” Lao-Tzu (Eleven pg 25)

Long time readers may recall my devotion to Summer Book Review #2: Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges.  Bridges defines the transition process as an ending, followed by neutral zone, followed by a beginning.  Jackson stumbled onto a similar structure:  “The Buddhist teacher Pema Chondron talks about letting go as an opportunity for true awakening.  One of her favorite sayings is ‘Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.'”  (Eleven, 200) A bit morbid perhaps but what a picture.

My interviewee deftly managed transition over a six-year interval.  Deftly is my word…she only acknowledged being her own worst enemy.   Along the way she defined a self-created identity that integrated her whole self and what she believed to be powerful.   With this backdrop in place she’s navigated two career changes already…constantly checking for alignment.    There was an awful experience with a boss along the way.   And a silence that seemed suffocating at times.

Coach Jackson believes that his job is to create the conditions for success.  So too our role in transition?   The courage to act.  A willingness to dignify our whole selves by integrating who we are.  A readiness to honor silence.  The task for me becomes easier by pivoting attention to conditions.  Maybe that’s what Coach Jackson was saying all along…

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One response to “Summer Book Review #30: Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

  1. Pingback: Summer Book Review Denouement | NovoFemina

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