The most successful coach in the history of American pro team sports — with 11 championships — and the best-selling author (with Hugh Delehanty, former AARP editor in chief) of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success talked to the AARP Bulletin about the NBA, spirituality and how to know when it’s time to walk away from something you love.
Q: In Eleven Rings you talk about using nonauthoritarian methods to empower your players. Can those leadership techniques be applied off the court?
A: That’s the idea: You have to be true to yourself as a leader. That’s what resonates with the people you work with. I was brought up in the home of ministers; much of my outlook in life is from a spiritual direction.
Q: You were on a spiritually driven quest to inspire players to achieve team goals, but in a way that let them achieve self-discovery. What forces in your life shaped that philosophy?
A: My father and mother were the initial big influence. My father had a humble approach. He felt called to his mission — he was not ego-driven. He spent time praying for people. It was a model for me, and a type of ministerial rhythm for him. That’s one of the reasons why meditation has become an easier tool for me to use than most people. My mom and dad set up a house where our days began with morning daily devotions, [saying] prayers on our knees.
I expanded my horizons in college, studying psychology, philosophy and religion. Finally, playing basketball in New York for 14 years, I lived in a vibrant city full of ideas. That was an education in its own right.
Q: When you discuss “leadership from the inside out,” what do you mean?
A: You have to speak what you believe. You have to say what you know from experience — intellectual, visceral and intuitive. As a coach, I knew things of a higher calling could unify groups of men. As a player, I watched how a community developed into a team that worked together for the greater good. Sometimes it’s not the most physically talented teams that win — it’s the team that can best use its talents that wins.
Next page: Finding contentment off the court. »