Phil Jackson is the most successful basketball coach of all time. What coaching and leadership lessons that we can learn from him are applicable outside of basketball as well?

This year was the long-awaited launch of what promised to be the best sports documentary of all time. The Last Dance looks back at the career of one of the world’s biggest sports icons: Michael Jordan. With such expectations and the social media hype that came with the launch, it could only disappoint… But it didn’t.

It was incredible. The documentary lived up to the sky-high expectations. The mindset and unbelievable work ethic of Michael Jordan are still an inspiration to hundreds of millions, all over the world. Anyone who watched the documentary kept talking about the competitiveness of Michael Jordan. And rightly so, but all I wanted to do was talk about his coach: Phil Jackson.

Phil Jackson is an American former professional basketball player, who played 12 seasons in the NBA and won 2 NBA championships as a player. After his playing career, he went on to become a coach. As a coach, he led his teams to winning 11 NBA titles, making him the most successful professional basketball coach in history.

Jackson is responsible for transforming incredible talents like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant into superstars and leaders of championship-winning teams. He is known as a tactical genius, but also for his holistic approach to coaching, inspired by Eastern philosophy and Native American traditions.

Let’s have a look at three powerful coaching lessons that we can learn from Phil Jackson.

  1. Practicing mindfulness improves performance

    This is not the first time that I have written about Phil Jackson. In my book about meditation, I tell the story of how he introduced mindfulness meditation to his Chicago Bulls team.

    Phil Jackson and his staff initially couldn’t even use the words mindfulness or meditation, because it would have discouraged the players. But Michael Jordan and the rest of the team quickly embraced the techniques once they experienced how it helped them to be in the optimal zone of performance, also known as ‘in flow’.

    We are now three decades later, and science has proven what Phil Jackson already knew: Mindfulness can be used to improve performance.

  2. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in coaching

    In the documentary we see how Phil Jackson manages his key players at the Chicago Bulls in very different ways. He knew exactly how to approach everyone in order to maximize the performance of the team.

    Jackson taught his main star Michael Jordan to become more of a team player and a leader who trusts his teammates to be able to step up as well. With forward Scottie Pippen it was pretty much the opposite. Jackson built his confidence by taking him out of the shadow of Michael Jordan.

    And then you had Dennis Rodman, the rebel of the team. Without a doubt one of the best defenders in the league, but someone with a ‘user manual’ written in a language that no one understood. No one, except from Phil Jackson. He knew exactly when to take the leash off and give Rodman the freedom to blow off some steam. Other coaches would have banned Rodman from the team for some of the things he did, but Jackson knew when to look the other way and Rodman paid him back with his performance on the court.

  3. Storytelling can motivate and unite

    The Last Dance sounds like a catchy name made up by the documentary makers, but it was Phil Jackson who came up with it. He looked for a theme for every season, to create a story that the players could buy into. When the players arrived at their first official team meeting of the 1997-1998 season, they all received the team handbook with The Last Dance on the front page. This may seem like a trivial detail at first, but let’s look at why it’s exactly important.

    Management had already made the decision that the team would be rebuilt after the coming season. Jackson realized that this could become a challenge, as players could easily get distracted and think about themselves and their next contract instead of focusing on this season’s performance. So he created a story. A story about it being the last dance for this group of players, many of whom had been a part of the previous two championship-winning teams. It encouraged the players and staff to make the most out of the time that they would still be together, and to prove management wrong.

The beauty about these lessons from Phil Jackson is that they are not just applicable to basketball. Any coach or leader, whether it is in sports or business, can learn from them. And everyone is a leader in some way. Take some time to think about how you can apply this in your life. And make sure to watch The Last Dance if you haven’t done so already. You won’t regret it.

Bonus: The examples that we looked at in this blog post all came from Phil Jackson’s time at the Chicago Bulls, but we could have used many more examples from his subsequent stint with the Los Angeles Lakers as well. Below is a short video of Kobe Bryant emphasizing the coaching genius.

Kobe Bryant about Phil Jackson