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Phil Jackson and The Last Dance – Why Jackson is a Great Coach

Maybe you saw the documentary The Last Dance during the height of our 2020 quarantine. As of late May, it averaged 5.648 million viewers per episode, across all 10 episodes - making it ESPN's most-watched docu-series. Whether you're a Bulls fan, or simply found yourself flipping channels hoping to land on something to occupy all that spare quarantine time, you may have found yourself captivated by the play by play, personal drama, and insights shared around the rise of the Chicago Bulls dominance in the '90s

I fell into the latter category, initially simply bored and channel surfing. I found myself fascinated by the dynamic that transpired between the players and the skill that Phil Jackson displayed as their coach. I highly recommend the series, an exciting look back behind the scenes at one of basketball's greatest teams. However, what held my attention throughout was watching Jackson, who proved to be the embodiment of what makes a great coach; expertise that goes far beyond calling plays and game management.

Connecting Individually

Like the best of coaches in any profession, Jackson connected with every player as an individual. He understood that treating everyone fairly didn't mean treating everyone the same. Meeting each player where they were, teaching them to play off of each other's skills, and accept each other's flaws. Jackson didn't play by a singular set of rules, a book of engagement. Instead, he had the confidence and the strength to see each man for who he was, lead when required, and let them take the lead when appropriate. As a coach, Jackson took care of them, held them accountable, and when individual needs changed, he adjusted accordingly. He did it in small ways and in significant ways.

Molding Chemistry

Coaching is defined as "Facilitating people in their own commitment and enthusiasm to accomplish their objectives." Like the best of coaches, Jackson understood that. He also understood something Marshall Goldsmith- business coach, likes to share "that the higher we go, the problems are behavioral." Jacksons' job was to take these highly motivated, freakishly talented men and help them to get out of their own way so that they could work successfully together. He did that not by putting them in a box but by giving them the space they needed to be themselves.

Watching the skill at which Jackson addressed Dennis Rodman's need to break away from "the routine" was beautiful. Jackson saw that in Rodman, he had a player whose personal struggles were unique to him, and the fix had to be equally unique. Jackson understood that allowing Rodman uncommon freedoms was the only path to success for him, and his success was paramount to the team's success.

Jackson's used an entirely different set of tools when working with Michael Jordan. Jordan required an altogether different kind of accountability, another type of support. With Jackson, Jordan, too, received exactly what he needed.

During the ten episodes, I watched as Jackson accommodated when it was best for a player or the team and stood hard against decisions that were not to the benefit of all. He is a man to be admired, a coach to be emulated.

Building A Culture of Success

Jackson created a culture that maximized the potential in every individual, resulting in a team success that will not soon be replicated. The number-one priority in coaching a team or an individual is to aid them in creating the results they seek. With the Bulls, the goal was winning players, winning seasons. In business, success may be marked by a very different metric, but how a coach helps you achieve that success is very much the same. A coach is not your buddy, your mentor, or your therapist. Good coaches know successful experts in their own field still need occasional assistance when it comes to assessing the unique obstacles, both personal and professional, holding them back. Great coaching requires getting in the weeds with the client, straight talk, open communication, genuine empathy, and the occasional kick in the rear. Jackson displayed all of the best qualities of a Great Coach.

Empowering Belief

Phil Jackson prepared his teams in a manner that empowered them to believe in themselves and execute without his direct supervision. He taught his players to listen to themselves and, when required, give grace to others. He schooled his players on more than just execution; he made them great leaders and confident thinkers. Great coaches prepare individuals and teams to perform at a high level, even in their absence.

Jackson's coaching skills are exceptional. He shows us an excellent example of how professional coaches, whether working with athletes or business leaders, push experienced professionals beyond their comfort zone to achieve optimum success.


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