New York Knicks President Phil Jackson: Why I Encourage Players to Think Like Musicians

There is an overriding principle that should direct any endeavor: Does this matter? During my long career in pro sports, I found that teams matter deeply to fans and their communities for the simple fact of just having a “team” to support and follow. I’ve come to believe sports are akin to what Marx said about religion: “It is the opium of the people.” It matters. Does your business matter? Can you make it matter to people and customers? My staff and I started our workday with this ditty that Kipling used in Just So Stories when making plans for our work day:

“I keep six honest men
They taught me all I knew.
Their names are: What & Why & When
& How & Where & Who.”

I think the Six Horsemen was picked up by journalists to be their “check-off” when writing a story. It also worked quite well for my staff when we were teaching and coaching players. If you approach these Six Horsemen objectively, it will give you a critical look at your effort.

My colleague Tex Winter begins his book The Triple Post Offense with two objectives about sports. The first objective for coaches and players is to learn the fundamentals of the game. The second objective is to integrate the players into a team. We used these two principals in building teams and I believe they are also useful criteria for most business endeavors. Workers have to embrace learning the business, which also might translate to fundamentals in my case. This involves, first, getting a commitment. We hope that there is more to work than making money, but sometimes it is the driving force. Finding what the key is to getting a commitment can be the greatest thing a leader does. One owner I worked for spoke of two forces that drove people: “greed and fear.” I countered that “community or love” was another driving force. Maybe in the present social media frenzy, notoriety or fame might be counted as the biggest force that motivates people. Whatever turns co-workers into making a commitment—joining the effort—is your challenge.

First objective: learning the fundamentals of the business, one should have a system or way of operation. I like to use a system. To implement that way of operating, people need to have the skills necessary to make it work. In basketball terms that might be ball handling, footwork, passing, and spacing. In a business world, it might be using an operating system or another form of communication. This brings about the process of doing business, a language that connects people with their co-workers. Simple, but effective.

Second objective: I have often tried to have our players think of themselves like a jazz group, who could improvise off each other’s play. On a similar note, Peter Drucker (considered to be the father of business management) in his obituary was credited with this: “Peter likened the society of organizations to be an orchestra. Each institution has to do its own work the way each instrument in an orchestra plays its own part. But there is also the score, the community, and only if each individual’s instrument contributes to the score is there music.” Otherwise it’s discord, I might add, which makes it important to have a system and score to learn, read, and follow. Your system or method of business is the foundation you build on.

Finally, I employ the use of mindfulness in working with my staff and employees. The use of the “One Mind One Breath” principle as a unifying force has been the glue that binds our people together. When the energy is low or the way gets difficult, having the opportunity to be quiet and just breathe together makes a difference. It is the most basic activity we do as human beings. Silencing our bodies and minds and allowing our better nature to be present is truly a gift. This is an important part of feeling like-minded and unified. As a cafeteria is a place people share food—“break bread” together—mindfulness is a dedication to giving co-workers a quiet time and space to feed the spirit.