Real Leaders

Losing Is Normal

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

I just finished reading Eleven Rings, the book by the brilliantly successful basketball coach Phil Jackson (pictured above). True stories are always the most interesting ones to me and it was fascinating to read his story of winning an NBA championship as a player and coaching his teams to win 10 more. One thing that stood out is that losing is normal!

Professional sports are not just competitive, they are radically so. By that I mean there is only one world champion In many ways it’s the ultimate zero-sum game. For every one winner there are scores, or even hundreds, of losers. And winning is extremely difficult. Winning consistently is almost impossible. That’s because when you get to the championship level of pro sports the talent is so even that luck is often the final differentiator.

I know, you probably don’t want to hear that, yet when you read the story of all the championship seasons, what is remarkable is the number of games lost by one point, two points or in overtime. It’s astonishing how often a single missed free-throw or a careless pass can make the difference between winning the game or a championship.

What struck me was how many times Jackson’s teams lost in the playoffs or the finals – often with the same players he would win championships with. Still, he won 10 NBA champions coaching teams with a few great stars and a constantly changing cast of role players who had to play the best basketball of their lives. The leadership lessons and the importance of personal resiliency in the face of failures were striking. Here are some of the things that struck me.

1. When you win is far more important that how often you win. Many teams who win 50 or 60 games during a regular season never make it to the finals. When it really counts they collapse. In life, not all goals or relationships are equal. Some are life-changing. In sport it’s easy to know what games are the most important. In life, it requires reflection. The only way I know how to keep my head in the game of life is to ask myself each day what’s matters most that will matter a year from now, and then make that my priority.

2. Being excellent at the detail is often the difference between success and failure. In sport the bounce of a ball often separates victory from defeat. All you can do is put yourself in a position to win if the ball bounces your way. Being excellent at the important details of life and leadership is usually the difference between happiness and regret. We don’t control all the big things in our lives. Sickness, betrayal, job loss, business failure and plenty of other nasty things are beyond our control. The one thing we do control is our response to everything that happens. And therein lies our power to turn losing into winning.

3. Spirituality matters. Perhaps the most powerful element of Phil Jackson’s story was his commitment to spirituality. Phil became famous as the “Zen” coach, and for good reason. He’s a sincere believer in the power of unseen energy to bind people together and create a deep level of relationship chemistry. He believes this is so vital to team success that before every game his entire team would sit in a dark room in silent meditation.

Every season he gave spiritual books to his players to read as they traveled the country. He never forced his beliefs on his team but he had the courage to invite everyone to participate. Most of his players thought he was a little weird yet recognized the positive impact of the silent energy their joint meditation created. It’s important to note of course that Jackson wasn’t trying to convert anyone to any religious dogma or even a philosophy.

What he was tapping into is now considered brain science. Our thought patterns create electrical energy. Our thoughts influence the electrical energy in the brains of others and together, people create group patterns of thinking and feeling. In sports this is know as team chemistry. It is often the difference between winning and losing.

What Jackson wanted his players to do is to be intentional about creating positive team chemistry.

To do this he sometimes had them practice scrimmage in silence. He always had them sit together in silence before the game and invited them to meditate on their roles and how they might support each other’s strengths. Since this is not common practice, it took a lot of courage to institute this way of being together.

4. A major leadership lesson for me is that great leaders teach people how to learn from losing. 

One thing for sure is that we will all lose and continue to lose throughout our lives. By losing I simply mean that things never go as planned… that small disappointments are normal and large disappointments are to be expected. What matters is not that we have faced difficulty but that we stay on our path. And I believe that ultimately our paths are as individual as our fingerprints. Our paths are not easy. Losing is normal. It’s how we respond that makes us extraordinary.

Yet we all have one thing in common. As Aristotle once explained, “Our best life is one in which we fulfill our nature in the pursuit of noble purpose.” For Phil Jackson his noble purpose was not to win an astonishing 11 championships. That was simply the effect of what he was up to… which was to help extraordinary athletes experience the miracle of genuine oneness.

Jackson believes that when we transcend our individual egos to accomplish something amazing together, we experience human connectedness in ways that are far more meaningful than winning. Is this just mumbo-jumbo? What do you think?


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