Basketball Coaching and Leadership

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Douglass Lewis finds five insights on leadership in Phil Jackson’s book about coaching the L.A. Lakers.


Last Christmas I received a copy of Phil Jackson’s book, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul. It is Jackson’s reflections on his last season as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Though it was not Jackson’s explicit purpose, I realized the book contains some important insights about leadership.

First, Jackson is clear that mission is the most important thing. People join organizations in order to accomplish something that they cannot do alone, whether it is basketball teams or churches. Karl Malone and Gary Payton, two future Hall of Famers, joined the Lakers in hope of achieving something that had eluded them throughout their great careers — winning a National Basketball Association (NBA) championship. That overriding mission focused the team.

Second, on this Lakers team were four future Hall of Famers — Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Payton, and Malone, along with an array of other players. Together they represented an enormous diversity of talents, motivations, and commitments. That is true of every church. The challenge for the coach (church leader) is how help the team to find its soul.

Third, coaching (leadership) makes a huge difference in the success of a team in achieving its mission. Jackson’s teams have won nine NBA championships, and he has the greatest winning percentage of any coach in NBA history.

Fourth, despite your best efforts you do not always win the championship — attain the vision and fulfill the mission. The Lakers were beaten badly in the finals by a no name team — the Detroit Pistons, coached by Larry Brown who had never won a title in his long coaching career.

Fifth, and this surprised me a bit, there is always a transcendent element present in a team that fulfills its mission. Jackson, a former church member, is now a practicing Zen Buddhist. He even had the team doing meditation on occasions. What he knew was that finding soul — a coming together of a team that transcends individuality, talents, and personal self-interest is the key to accomplishing a mission. Jackson also knew deep down that soul is a gift — that one could only know it when you see it and feel it.

Church leaders also work with a team of diverse talent, individuality, and self-interest. Faithful and effective leaders help them find soul and focus on mission — to win a championship, as it were, for the advancement of God’s reign and purposes in the world.


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About Author

Photo of G. Douglass Lewis

G. Douglass Lewis, for whom the Lewis Center for Church Leadership is named, was president of Wesley Theological Seminary from 1982-2002. Since retirement, he has consulted widely with seminaries in the areas of governance, leadership, strategic planning, and development.


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