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March 26, 2014 » 8:33 am

Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power

Ten months ago, as I was in the midst of figuring out my next chapter, I wrote a blog post about legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson. I expressed chagrin at how a man like Phil Jackson was essentially being put out to pasture. He was getting coaching offers, but he had made it clear that he didn’t want to coach, and it seemed like teams were missing out on the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom due to their lack of imagination.

Last week, Jackson was named president of the New York Knicks. If you know basketball, you know that this was an eyebrow-raising development for two reasons. First, James Dolan — the owner of the Knicks — is widely acknowledged as one of the worst owners in the NBA, largely due to his meddling ways. It’s hard to imagine that match working, although Dolan has repeatedly been on record since last week that Jackson will have full control over basketball-related decisions.

Second, it was somewhat surprising that the Los Angeles Lakers never found a way to make it work with Jackson, given that he led them to five championships and is engaged to one of the owners of the team. It’s complicated. The Lakers are a family-owned team whose beloved, larger-than-life patriarch — widely considered the best-ever owner in the history of the NBA — recently passed away. His children — including Jackson’s fiancee — have been groomed to take over for years, and Jackson has always had a complicated relationship with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who is now in charge of basketball decisions.

Still, why weren’t other teams jumping to employ Jackson? Ramona Shelburne wrote a great column for ESPN.com on this very topic:

For all the self-reflection Jackson has done in his 68 years, there was one image he was never going to be able to see clearly. His own. The way he’s seen by others, that is. Not what stares back at him in the mirror, or what’s inside his heart and head. On some level, Jackson understands that he is an intimidating man. His 6-foot-8 frame casts a towering shadow. His 11 NBA titles, Hall of Fame résumé and status as the coach who got the best out of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant walk into any room five minutes before he does.

It’s more than that, though.

The job he wanted for himself, the role he envisioned for the autumn of his basketball life — as a team president with final say over basketball decisions and the authority to create and shape the culture of a franchise — is a large one.

Pat Riley holds a role like that in Miami. So does Larry Bird in Indiana. Jackson certainly has the credentials for a role like that, too. But it’s a big ask of any owner. That kind of power is why an owner spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a professional sports franchise. So he can have the power. It is inherently threatening when an employee has even a little bit of it. It is kind of terrifying when that employee is a legend like Phil Jackson.

If you are in a Phil Jackson-like position, and if you’re wanting a certain role, you have to make it safe for others to embrace you. It’s not enough to sit back and wonder. You have to understand how you’re perceived, even if it’s the furthest thing from your own perception of yourself.

As I wrote last May, I see myself in Jackson’s situation (not that I’m even in the same ballpark of his accomplishments). I sometimes find myself wondering why people in certain situations don’t reach out to me more. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m wanting to share everything I’ve learned over the years and that I have much, much more to learn. Folks who know me know that I’m all about learning and doing great work, that I’m secure about my reputation, that I give credit more than I take it, and that I have no need to be the boss if I’m surrounded by great people and a healthy culture. If you care about similar things, why wouldn’t you try to take advantage of that?

At the same time, I understand both the perception and the reality of my situation. Organizational development professionals in particular tend to come from academia and management consulting, fields that are rife with scarcity mindset and do not believe in or understand the benefits of openness. It’s hard for folks in these fields to understand where I’m coming from and to not perceive me as a threat. I have little patience for people who are more concerned with protecting their reputation than they are about learning, and I’m not shy about expressing my feelings. If it were truly important for me to find ways to work with and mentor others who feel this way, it’s my prerogative to make these folks feel safe. Frankly, I’m mixed about this.

There’s also a flip side. What am I doing to reach out to and learn from others? Could I be doing more?

In 2011, Joe Lacob, who had recently purchased the Golden State Warriors, hired Jerry West as an advisor. On the one hand, this was a Phil Jackson-like no-brainer, maybe times ten. Jerry West is probably the greatest general manager ever. He won six rings as an executive for the Lakers, left in a bit of a power play (involving Phil Jackson), and turned around the Memphis Grizzlies, a historically moribund franchise. That’s not even accounting for his career as a player. West’s impact on the NBA is so great, they literally made him its logo.

Unlike Jackson, West was on record as saying that he didn’t want to become a decision-making part of any organization. On the one hand, if you were trying to turn a franchise around, why wouldn’t you want someone like West? On the other hand, even if West was being authentic about his desired role, you would need people who were tremendously secure to be able to work with him as an advisor.

Here’s what Lacob had to say in 2011 about the concern that there were “too many chefs in the kitchen”:

Everyone who says that is completely clueless. It’s a stupid thing to bring up. This is a 100-plus-million-dollar business. You have to have management. Most NBA teams are incredibly poorly architected on the basketball side. They have people who are ex-players, and Jerry West is an exception to this — but most of them are ex-players or scouts or whatever. They don’t know how to negotiate against incredibly trained killers like Arn Tellem or other agents. That’s what they do for a living. I’m not a genius. There’s a different way to do things and be successful, clearly. But it’s a very successful, thought-out map.

He certainly will feel the itch [to get more involved]. I’m sure he would love to be running something again and pulling the trigger again. That’s the excitement of it, right? But he also knows, and we’ve had these discussions at great lengths, he’s 73 and he’s in L.A. He can’t do it that way. It’s a young man’s game. There’s a lot of day-to-day scouting, a lot of day-to-day video analysis. He’s not prepared to do that right now and doesn’t want to. He has other interests right now.

Three years later, the relationship seems to have paid off. The Warriors are one of the best teams in the NBA, and Lacob credits West for coming in and changing the mentality of the organization.

I think that Joe Lacob is a wonderful model, and it’s got me thinking: Who are the Jerry West’s in my field whom I could be reaching out to and learning from?

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2 Responses to “Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power”

  1. I really enjoyed this article. As a non-American geek, I wonder if I would appreciate the insights even more if the story wasn't constructed around (American) sports. I'd love to here your own experiences as you have worked with many business personalities.

    Unless, of course, this article is a subtle positioning for you to get consultation gigs with NBA team and other sports franchises.

  2. Damn, you caught me. Notice how all of the "greatest evers" happen to be part of the team I grew up rooting for as a kid?! ;-)

    This was definitely my excuse to write about the latest sports happenings, but I do have lots of other stories about balancing egos and avoiding the too-many-chefs syndrome, including several personal ones. How about you?

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