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PPI #34: Lessons to Improve your Team from the Chicago Bulls & LA Lakers

Eric Partaker


  • Did you realize that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers can teach us a lot about how to improve the performance of our teams at work? I had no idea but after reading the book 11 Rings by 11-time championship winning coach Phil Jackson, my approach to managing teams completely transformed and in this episode I’ll share with you what I learned from the . 
  • There are five stages of evolution that teams go through but most get stuck at the third or fourth stage. Stage one is characterized by the belief that life sucks, while stage two is founded on ‘my life sucks’. The third category – which is where Phil encountered the Chicago Bulls – is all about personal domination, where teammates seek to show they are the best.
  • The fourth stage is characterized by having a big focus so the bigger the adversary, the more stable that team is. In the Chicago Bulls’ early history, that was the Detroit Pistons, who they eventually beat after losing several times in the playoffs.
  • Finally, stage five is defined by the belief that ‘Life is great’, Teams at this stage pursue whatever they’re working on for the love of the work itself. They’re not there to fight against someone else but to compete against themselves and be the best they can truly be. 
  • In this episode I’ve picked out 7 major tools out of the 11 Phil mentions in his book that I have found to be most relevant and most impactful within my teams and the teams of leaders and CEOs that I work with as a high performance coach. 


Did you realize that the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers can actually teach us a lot about how to improve the performance of our teams? Did you realize that they can teach us how to win more games more often? I had no idea, but after reading the book 11 Rings by Phil Jackson, it totally changed my approach to managing teams and my approach to understanding where a team was at and where that team needed to be.

Today I want to share with you a way in which you can determine where your team is at. Where they are ranking versus where they could be ranking, and then how do I move them up in stages of performance? The reason this is so interesting is because of who this comes from. So this comes from Phil Jackson, as I said, he wrote the book 11 Rings.

Why is it called 11 Rings? Because Phil won 11 NBA national basketball association championships, six while he was a head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Lots of people said, “Well, yeah, but you benefited from having Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever in the game.” But then he said, “Okay, hang on, watch this.” He went over to the Los Angeles Lakers. He had some great talent there, but he also then won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. 11 championships in total. This guy knows what he’s doing. He knows how to manage teams. He knows how to get star players to perform well together. There’s so much we can learn from him, which I want to take you through today.

My name is Eric Partaker and I help CEOs, entrepreneurs, and individuals close that gap between who they are and who they’re capable of being. Either for themselves, or as we’re going to be talking about today, for those that they’re leading and for those that they’re managing so that they can close that gap between where they are and where they’d like to be.

The first thing that Phil takes us through is these stages of evolution for teams. He extracts a lot of this from a book that he references called Tribal Leadership. There are various stages that we want to move a team up on so that that team can achieve its full potential and that team can win more often and lose less often. 

Stage one – really simple, anyone who’s in stage one or a team who’s in stage one just believes life sucks. They are really undermining that everything’s bad, no matter what you suggest. Most teams aren’t anywhere close to being in this category. The next stage up from that is ‘My life sucks’. So you can imagine that that’s not good as well. That’s just like a particular member of the team, or say the team itself, just thinking that they’re no good.

Most teams don’t fall into that category either. The next category – and this is where Phil, when he first encountered the Chicago bulls, thought that they were at this category. So the next category is all about personal domination. However, what really defines this team is that they have a really big focus. So, the bigger the adversary, the more stable that team is, because they’re directly competing against this big opponent. Now in the Chicago Bulls’ early history, that was the Detroit Pistons. So they had transitioned from stage three to stage four, very focused on beating Detroit, but they weren’t at what Phil wanted them to be at yet, which is where we should be trying to get all of our teams, which is stage five. And stage five is defined by ‘Life is great’.

So this is where the team really comes together. Beyond that fourth category, they pursue the game or whatever the industry is that they’re working in for the love of itself. They’re not there to fight against someone else, they don’t exist because they’re an adversary to someone else. From a competition point of view, instead of having that big thing that they’re trying to compete against, they’re actually just competing against themselves. Their goal is, “How do I become better today than who I was yesterday? How do I become even better tomorrow and the day after?” That’s the ‘life is great’ mentality. That’s where Phil Jackson wanted to progress both the Bulls and the Lakers. Now the benefit of having him doing so is those 11 rings.

He literally did something that no other coach has done. He went to two different teams and won at least five championships with both of them at the top level. So, the benefit of getting your teams to progress up these stages is massive. From “I’m great to you’re not,” from, “We’re great to life is great”. How did Phil do that? Well, he gives us a myriad of tools that he presents in the book – 11 in total to match the 11 rings. I’m not going to go through all of those today, but I did want to pick out the seven that I have found to be most relevant and most impactful within my teams. As a coaching tool with the CEOs, entrepreneurs, and individuals that I coach to help them coach higher performance through their teams.

So let’s get into that. Each of the seven things together with a practical tool or reflection that you can use to really embed what it is that Phil’s trying to teach us here. So the first thing that I want to take us through is what Phil refers to as benching the ego. So you have to be willing to let your team members, let those that you’re leading kind of take the lead, be the stars if you will, but without relinquishing final authority. So you’re there to coach and make sure that they’re playing the game well, make sure that they’re winning as many games as possible, and you’re letting them take the spotlight. You’re not needing to share in that with them. You’re just there in the background, making sure that they’re doing the right things, providing them that feedback, what they are doing well, what they could be doing to improve, and having a nice balance to that. You know, 50/50 is a good ratio, constantly in real time if possible. 

But you’re benching that ego. You’re letting them be the stars, but without relinquishing your final authority. The next thing that Phil talks about, or the next thing at least that I wanted to share with you is all around player destiny. So, letting the players or your team members determine their own destiny. What that really boils down to when we’re managing or trying to lead teams is really giving them autonomy, really helping them see where they’re going wrong themselves. Resisting the temptation to constantly direct and say, “Do this, don’t do that.” A fantastic model that you can use to help people realize their own path and create their own destiny is a coaching model called GROW. It’s just four letters and it’s a very simple system to use.

You’ll find tons of information out there that will teach you how to use the simple framework. But in a conversation, you just start with someone by asking them to remind themselves, “What’s the goal here? What is it that we’re trying to achieve?” That’s the G. The R is for reality. Where are we right now in relation to that goal? What’s in the way, are there any setbacks, any issues? What’s preventing us from being where we’d like to be – you as a player, you as a team member? The O is for options. So how might we get from where we are right now, our reality, to the goal? What are the different options, the different ways in which we could get there? How might we overcome these obstacles? You’re getting them to generate those. They’re creating their own destiny.

They’re their own autonomy here. Then the W is for will, or you’ll see some people describe it as way forward. You want them to essentially commit to what they’re going to do out of those options that you’ve generated, which is the way forward? What to do? That’s a great way I’ve found to help people to find their own autonomy, help encourage autonomous thinking, and really get them to create their own destiny. 

The next thing that I wanted to share that Phil talks about is the road to freedom, he calls it a beautiful system. What he means by that is you need to have a systematized approach to generating great team performance. I think one of the simplest things that you can be doing with your team is making sure that you have a regular communication rhythm.

Do you have your weekly team meetings? Are they happening without fail? Do you have daily huddles? For example, one of the things that I like to do is a Monday commitments meeting. What are we all committing to? And then a Friday wins meeting. What are we celebrating? What went well this week? Then some kind of quarterly review as well. How did we do against the results in the previous quarter? What did we learn? What could we be doing better? Then using that as any insights or learnings gleaned from that as inputs into setting the next goals for the quarter. Having a meeting or communication system, which incorporates both goal setting and progress reviews like that is incredibly powerful and definitely does create a path to freedom from a team point of view.

The next thing I wanted to share from Phil’s teachings is compassion. I know it sounds like such a simple word and we hear it all the time, but sometimes we can transform the toughest players, the most belligerent individuals on the team, with just some words of compassion demonstrating the niceness that we want to see in them, demonstrating that with them. We shouldn’t be using compassion just with the toughest players of course, with everyone we should be extending that gratitude, that praise, that understanding for where they are is hugely transformative. Up next is keeping your eye on the spirit, not the scoreboard. I love this one. Of course, we do want to keep an eye on how we are progressing throughout the quarter against our goals and making sure that we’re checking in on that.

But we also want to keep a very, very close eye on how people are feeling. One of the things that I do in one on one meetings or in team meetings is I just ask the person that I’m meeting with, “How are you feeling? What’s going well, what’s making you feel great? What’s making you feel not so great?” If we don’t keep an eye on that spirit, we will lose the opportunity to correct bad moods or poor moods, which are absolutely going to negatively affect our performance if they’re not dealt with or if the person doesn’t have a chance to speak them. So we want to mine that out and make sure that that spirit is being kept up as high as possible in the individuals and in the team as a whole.

The next principle that I wanted to share from Phil’s teachings is referred to sometimes you have to pull out the big stick. You can’t be a coach if you have a need to be liked. You are there for service. You are not there to be every team member’s best friend. There’s a difference between leading a family and a team. Families strive to stick together no matter what, whereas a team is optimized to grow, optimized, to win at all times. You need to ask yourself, “Who am I being? Does my style indicate that I’m actually leading a family here or a team?” Because if you’re leading a family, once again, you’re probably going to always want to be liked and not saying the things that maybe need to be said. As a coach, you need to dare to say the things that no one else perhaps dares to say to the individuals, to the players, in the spirit of service, in the spirit of helping them elevate to that higher level.

So sometimes you’re going to have to take out that big stick and tell people where they’re off, what they need to be doing. Why, when, how, etc. The last principle that I wanted to share from Phil Jackson’s book was forget the ring. I love this one. I’ve talked about this before in other videos. The path to mastery is not by constantly looking at the peak that you want to climb, but by keeping your eyes focused on the path. You can go ahead and glance up to it at times, you can look at that product that you want to be making or achieving or building. But the path to that is the process. So focus on the process, focus on the practice, focus on what needs to be done day in and day out.

Eventually that ring will come. The goal becomes the journey and the destination is just suddenly arrived at. I hope you found that useful. I found that incredibly inspiring, especially the person that it’s coming from. Again, Phil Jackson got to six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, he did the same with the Los Angeles Lakers and won five there. 11 championships in total. It’s all about recognizing, Where is our team? The individuals on that team, are they at stage one? Life sucks. Are they at stage two? My life sucks. Are they at stage three? I’m great, you’re not. Are they at stage four? We’re great. Or are they at stage five where we really want them to be at, where life is great? They’re not even competing against their adversaries anymore. They’re competing against themselves. They have that innocent wonderment about what’s next, what else could we achieve? It’s limitless. And that’s why Phil ultimately won those 11 rings, by progressing people up those stages, using some of the tactics that I just shared with you in today’s video.

Eric has been named "CEO of the Year" at the 2019 Business Excellence Awards, one of the "Top 30 Entrepreneurs in the UK" by Startups Magazine, and among "Britain's 27 Most Disruptive Entrepreneurs" by The Telegraph.

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