A dear friend recently sent me an email under the title “Legendary Basketball Coach on Team Building”. As I opened the message, I thought to myself, “Oh no, not another sports’ reference about team leadership.”
Then, I read the quote: “Basketball is a great mystery. You can do everything right. You can have the perfect mix of talent and the best system of offense in the game. You can devise a foolproof defensive strategy and prepare your players for every possible eventuality. But if the players don’t have a sense of oneness as a group, your efforts won’t pay off. And the bond that unites a team can be so fragile and so elusive. Oneness is not something you can turn on with a switch. You need to create the right environment for it to grow then nurture it carefully every day.” (from Eleven Rings: the Soul of Success, by Phil Jackson, 2013)
This was no run-of-the-mill sports analogy about the similarities between coaching a sports team and corporate team building: there was a subtle and almost lyrical quality in what Phil Jackson had written. Perhaps it was his religious upbringing, his personal embrace of Zen Buddhism as an adult, or maybe his easy familiarity with both western and eastern wisdom traditions, but it seems that Jackson brings a whole other dimension into play whenever he talks about his forty years at the pinnacle of playing and coaching in the NBA. So when Phil Jackson talks about building a team, it a good idea to listen.
As I reflected about this elusive and fragile bond of oneness that he wrote about, I wondered how often I remember that this deeper level of cohesion exists as a possibility when I am consulting with family businesses. After all, a family enterprise is made up of many individual players within the overlapping business, ownership and family spheres, and teams are constantly forming and reforming around different needs and tasks, some short-lived and others existing across generations. And those teams always consist of exactly the same two elements that Phil Jackson has spent his entire professional life wrestling with: the personal needs, dreams and agendas of each individual versus the needs, goals and agendas of the group as a whole, and the interaction between the two is always where the real action is.
Whenever talking basketball, Jackson over and over again would bring the listeners around to the relationship that exists between the individual players and the team and, at the same time, the relationship of the team to each individual player. He taught that a winning team is more than its star players, and that star players are made stronger within a team bound together as a greater whole. To illustrate this point, Jackson is fond of quoting from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Law of the Jungle:
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back - -
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack”
And, of course, implied in the concept of relationship is the expectation of a willing responsibility borne each for the other. (As an aside, it was this latter idea of mutual responsibility, with a team made up of of individual players all at the summit of a very elite mountain, that Phil Jackson met some of his greatest challenges.)
Jackson’s and Kipling’s words express in different ways the dichotomy of the same two elements that make up any pack, team or work group; individual members working together as a whole towards some common goal. It would be easy to posit at this point that anyone involved with building or leading teams within a family business, whether internal family and corporate leaders or external consultants, should always try to maintain the well-balanced vision required to meet the needs of both sides of the equation, but leaders and consultants are hardly ever this consistent in their vision, especially in the heat of intense work. Some of us have a natural bias to focus more on the individual, while others tend to see the group’s agenda as primary to the needs or personal agendas of each individual member. Does this make either side somehow flawed as leaders or consultants? Not at all. It is what makes us who we are as real people, and all that is really necessary for the leader or consultant to be balanced in their work with family businesses is that we are aware of, and accepting of, their own unique values or individual biases.
Rarely, do family teams operate consistently with this sense of oneness that Phil Jackson writes about, but this mystery of the team united as one is there in front of us as an ideal. I thank my friend for sending me this quote and Phil Jackson for reminding us that: “Oneness is not something you can turn on with a switch. You need to create the right environment for it to grow then nurture it carefully every day.”