The word “transcendental” in the dictionary offers definitions in three subjects: spirituality, philosophy, and mathematics. Sit with that for a moment, and you’ll notice there aren’t many words in human language that have the flexibility to play in such distinct spaces. Yet, “transcendental” manages to pull it off seamlessly—it’s a powerful word. You might have heard it thrown around in relation to “Transcendental Meditation” or “TM” for short. It has a kind of woo-woo connotation that most people simply have no time for. But put its three definitions into the context of leadership, and more specifically into the context of the last of our Three I’s: Innovation, and you have the potential to become a truly transformative leader.
In The Three I’s of Leadership, I introduced you to Phil Jackson, one of the greatest coaches in the history of professional sports, a mentor and coach of both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and a winner of 11 NBA Championships. But before he accomplished any of that, he spent seven years seeking and being rejected from NBA coaching jobs. How could a coach with such potential be not just overlooked, but actively rejected by NBA teams who are geared to find the best talent? It all starts with our spiritual definition.
The spiritual definition of transcendental says, “relating to a spiritual or nonphysical realm.” And Phil Jackson fits the bill perfectly. Growing up in a remote part of Montana, his parents were Christian ministers. No television, no dancing, and no straying from the faith was allowed. That was all he knew until he discovered basketball in high school. When he made it to the NBA, he made no secret that he sympathized (at the very least) with the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. In doing so, not only did he reject the lifestyle and beliefs of his parents, but he also alienated those in the NBA who would have hired him otherwise. He embraced Zen Buddhism, grew a curly afro, and has admitted to doing LSD—all things his parents and employers despised. And in the face of social and professional pressure, he never wavered in his beliefs. The foundation of his innovative leadership style was formed in his spirituality.
Philosophically, transcendental means, “presupposed in and necessary to experience; a priori,” or in plain English, “independent of experience.” In the seven years during the 80’s when Jackson sought his NBA coaching opportunity, he had to settle for lesser jobs in order to prove himself professionally. He worked as a coach in the now-defunct CBA and spent several years coaching in Puerto Rico. He won a CBA championship in 1984 and became Coach of the Year in 1985. But because he was seen by most NBA teams as rebellious, he was always judged a priori, or independent of experience, because he simply coached with an innovative approach for the time—player-friendly, and spiritually in touch. For better or for worse, he built a reputation that preceded him and any success he might have had. And while his reputation may have kept him out of the NBA for so long, it became his core strength once the Chicago Bulls reluctantly hired him as an assistant coach in 1987. His potential was simply too much for them to ignore.
The mathematical definition of transcendental states, “real but not a root of an algebraic equation with rational roots.” Phil Jackson attained levels of success in the NBA that no coaches have ever reached. His success was real, but not rooted in orthodoxy. Very few people outside of basketball circles know the name Tex Winter, but if it wasn’t for Tex, we might not know the name Phil Jackson. Tex was an innovator of the triangle offense, a system that revolutionized the game of basketball and the mind of Jackson himself. Jackson met Tex when he was hired by the Bulls, and like a sponge during his first two years, soaked up everything the master had to teach him. Jackson imitated Tex, iterated on his offensive philosophy, and when he unexpectedly was promoted to head coach of the Bulls in 1989, he innovated his way to six championships in his first nine years. The triangle offense was so unusual and groundbreaking that most teams couldn’t combat it effectively. Even his own players often complained about it. Michael Jordan didn’t like it because it took the ball out of his hands more often. Kobe Bryant infamously called the triangle offense “boring.” But the system worked. And it worked over and over again. Phil Jackson’s success was mathematically transcendental, and it was because he utilized the Three I’s of Leadership, and never wavered from his principles.
Phil Jackson’s story is well worth studying. He was a hippy-looking Zen Buddhist with a coaching strategy even his own players despised, and went on to win 11 NBA championships in two decades. He was humble enough to take the long path to an NBA coaching career, and to learn and utilize an innovative strategy not his own. Yet he was strongly principled when it came to fending off the doubts of his superiors and his subordinates. Phil Jackson, the “Zen Master” was transcendental innovation personified.
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