[book report] Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson


I don’t enjoy watching US sports. I’ve tried. I’ve been to live baseball, ‘football’, basketball and ice hockey games in the States but never really clicked with them. I am however endlessly fascinated with the culture of US sports. The relationships with colleges, the ‘draft’, the collective bargaining & salary caps and more than anything the incredibly elevated status of the coach in their sporting world.

This map is a few years out of date now but it always stayed with me — the best paid public employees in each state →

Crazy huh!

Anyway back to the book. Phil Jackson is one of those characters who is bigger than his sport. He has become part of popular culture. He is the most successful basketball coach of all time, was a successful player in his own right, is famous for his ‘spiritual’ Zen approach and Native American imagery as well as the small matter that he coached some of biggest talents (and egos) in history. People like Michael Jordan, Shaq and Kobe Bryant.

This book is less an autobiography and more a treatise on his leadership approach and techniques for managing big personalities to major success.

The book is a mix of anecdotal examples of how Jackson worked with players to succeed, autobiographical details to give context and a lot of insight in to his commitment to a spiritual approach including mindfulness, Zen etc.

There is a lot in the book that I think is interesting to anyone who spends as much time as I do thinking about making teams work but it is more about leadership principles than anything obviously transferable and to be honest it is sometimes difficult to unpick it all from all the spiritual stuff which I simply do not get along with.

Here are a couple of quotes I really liked though that chimed with me in how I think about building high performing agile teams..

When I’m hiring coaches, my strategy is to surround myself with the strongest, most knowledgeable people I can find and give them a lot of room to express themselves.

Sounds a lot like that famous Steve Jobs quote:

Rather than squeeze everybody into preordained roles, my goal has always been to foster an environment where players can grow as individuals and express themselves within a team structure.

I think this is an interesting quote (albeit taken a little out of context). There is a bit of debate about specificity in roles within agile teams — I personally appreciate having both expertise and the flexibility for people to stray out of their lanes for the good of the work and their individual growth.

My favourite quote though was this one;


Remember that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie when someone asks Indy what he’s going to do next, and he replies, “I don’t know, I’m making it up as we go along.” That is how I view leadership. It’s an act of controlled improvisation, a Thelonious Monk finger exercise, from one moment to the next.

Controlled improvisation. Is there any better definition of leadership in an agile environment. It is about having confidence in the system, in your team, in your awareness. To be flexible. It isn’t chaos — it is controlled. Just like Monk.

All in all it was an interesting read. If you are a basketball fan, or on a path towards spiritual discovery you will probably get more out it than I did but I certainly enjoyed it. He is no Ian Holloway though 🙂

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