The Last Word A Champion Leader

By John Hollon

Jul. 2, 2009

When you hear people talk about great managers, a lot of names are bandied about, usually starting (and sometimes ending) with Jack Welch.

Yes, the Great Jack is arguably one of the best of all time, but he hasn’t managed much of anything since leaving General Electric nearly 10 years ago. These days, he’s largely confined to just talking about good management, as he will be doing this month at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in New Orleans.

But there is another guy out there who rivals and perhaps even eclipses Welch as one of the greatest managers and workforce strategists of all time. He’s currently managing and adding new honors to his already long and impressive leadership résumé. I’m talking about the great Zen master himself—Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson.

Some people don’t think of them in this way, but ultimately, great coaches ARE great managers. And Phil Jackson is the greatest professional basketball coach of all time, with 10 NBA titles to his credit, the latest coming June 14. He’s right up there with former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who won 10 titles as a head coach.

Still, Jackson gets dinged by a lot of shortsighted critics who believe that just about anyone could have rolled out the basketball and won a half-dozen titles in Chicago with Michael Jordan, or four more in Los Angeles with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. When you get handed great players like them, how hard can winning be? As The Dallas Morning News put it, “for coaches, there’s a thin line between lucky and legendary.”

Maybe that’s true. Certainly there is a degree of luck that every highly successful person needs to help facilitate their ultimate success, the notion being that if you have to choose, it’s always better to be lucky than good. But can you discount winning 10 championships and say it’s simply about having been handed great players? Lots of coaches have great players. If it was just about having superstar players, why haven’t more coaches who also have great talent won a bunch of titles?

Maybe it’s because Phil Jackson is different from other coaches in the way he motivates players—even the superstars like Michael Jordan—to build something larger and greater than themselves.

“[I think] it’s his ability to bring people together,” Kobe Bryant told the British newspaper The Guardian. “The biggest thing that he does so well is he continues to coach the group, continues to coach unity and chemistry and togetherness. And that’s the biggest thing, because when you’re together you can withstand adversity. If you’re not, you can easily break apart and become a team of individuals.”

This is the classic definition of a manager—someone who brings together a group of individuals to accomplish something as a unit that they could not have accomplished on their own. Plus, Jackson does it without the histrionics that all too many people believe that leadership is about.

“This championship may be Jackson’s finest hour,” The Guardian noted. “Two hip replacements mean that Jackson is no longer jumping up and down on the sidelines as he once did in Chicago. Yet quietly, in his own understated manner, he has done what he always did: prodding and cajoling when required, but otherwise letting his players utilize the talents within.”

There are timeless management lessons we can all learn from watching a great coach like Phil Jackson operate. As maddening as his Zen master philosophy and laid-back court presence can seem at times, there is a deep philosophical underpinning to Jackson’s management style. He is secure in what he needs to do to get the best out of his team and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of that. Isn’t that the essence of what great workforce management is all about?

It is for me, and that’s what I will be thinking about next week in New Orleans when I’m sitting there at SHRM’s opening session, listening to Jack Welch. And although I’m sure he’ll have some fine management wisdom to impart, I’ll be wondering—what would Phil Jackson have said if he were here instead?

Workforce Management, June 22, 2009, p. 50Subscribe Now!

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