Adaptive Leadership and The Paradoxical Nature of the Triangle Offense
Many athletic coaches lead in a transactional manner as they try to control for the performance and success of their players and teams, strictly through skills development and team strategy. These coaches are like the average business leaders who, “under pressure to deliver ‘leadership’ all too often make the classic error of treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,”.1 Phil Jackson however, guides his players and teams towards transformational growth as he creates an ideal adaptive environment, a term originated and defined by Heifetz and Laurie for leadership development in the corporate world.2
Interestingly enough, Heifetz and Linsky actually cited Jackson as a prime example of their theory, as he demonstrated remarkable adaptive leadership capacities amidst major turmoil and controversy with one of his Bulls’ teams; as the researchers explained, “Jackson gave the work of addressing both the Pippen and the Jordan issues back to the team for another reason: If he had taken ownership of the problem, he would have become the issue, at least for the moment,”.3 This anecdote is indicative of the main difference between technical and adaptive leadership in that, “While technical problems may be very complex and critically important . . . they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how . . . Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties,”.4 In this way, adaptive leadership promotes transformational growth within organizations and teams.
Although Jackson himself may or may not be unaware of these concepts and technical applications from the leadership, educational, and developmental worlds, he fully understands and embodies this work as a basketball coach. Aptly, Jackson explained, “I can’t pretend to be an expert in leadership theory. But what I do know is the art of transforming a group of young, ambitious individuals into an integrated championship team is not a mechanistic process,”.5
Theory and application are two very different conversations though, and the real power behind Jackson’s ability to actually lead in this way comes from his own developmental order of mind. This discussion leads to the second aforementioned quality of self-transformational leaders as proposed by Helsing and Lahey, which is their ability to, “orient to the dialectical or paradoxical, welcoming contradiction and oppositeness,”.6 It is Jackson’s highly-ordered and complex developmental capacities of holding paradox, theory, ideology that allow him to create a powerful adaptive environment for his own players and teams development.
There are a number of instances that showcase Jackson’s developmental leadership ability to hold paradox—for example, many times he refuses to call timeouts as his team is struggling, “so that the players would be forced to coming up with a solution on their own”; he views discipline, “not as a weapon but as a way to instill harmony into the players’ lives”; and describes the ultimate polarity of athletic competition between winning and losing as, “obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome,”.7
However, one of the most salient examples of adaptive leadership in Jackson’s coaching career was his commitment to the “triangle offense”. Jackson describes how this offensive strategy is a paradox in itself, as it is dictated by a disciplined foundation and well-organized framework that also allows for tremendous creativity and flow within that structure. Many coaches within basketball and many other sports try to create specific plays for their teams to follow on command. Jackson though, coached in a way that challenged his players to work together within a highly-structured formation, while also supporting them to fully express their individual talents, skills, and creative abilities.
More specifically, the triangle offense is a fascinating example of a moving mindfulness practice in group form. As Jackson described, “the triangle as ‘five-man tai chi’ because it involves all the players moving together in response to the way the defense positions itself,” and Bryant, his star player on the Lakers, explained, “the opposition didn’t know what we were going to do . . . because we didn’t know what we were going to do from moment to moment,”.8 This strategy allows his teams to become present and to enter a flow state together as a whole as they learn to read and react to their teammates’ movements, as well as to the other team’s defense.9
From a CDT perspective, Jackson is able to hold this system—which could be seen as a team theory or identity—in the same way that he is able to hold his own personal ideologies as object. Furthermore, Jackson holds this theory or ideology as a space through which his players and teams can grow and develop their own capacities. Jackson eloquently noted, “The beauty of the system—and this applies to all kinds of systems, not just the triangle—was that it turned the whole team into a learning organization,”.10
Interestingly enough, many of Jackson’s players, especially his star players like Jordan and Bryant were extremely resistant to playing within the triangle offense at first, but grew to love the structure over the course of their careers.11 Assuredly, adaptive environments are expected to be uncomfortable in one way or another as they challenge people to grow and develop in complex ways, along with also providing a great deal of support for that transformation.
The triangle offense was one such example of an adaptive container which, “provides protection paradoxically by keeping people within an energizing discomfort zone, pacing their work, and sequencing the issues so that they can still be productive (not by sheltering them from threatening change),”.12 Through his awareness and ability to hold this team theory of the triangle offense as object, Jackson was able to see how his players would play within and shape the system, but that the system itself would shape his players. In other words, the players would play the triangle offense, and the triangle offense would play his players!
This depth of appreciation that Jackson had for this system was eloquently surmised with a quote from the famous jazz musician, Charlie Parker, who remarked, “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you,”.13 Clearly, Jackson demonstrates a highly complex developmental ability of holding his structures, frameworks, and strategies as object through which his players’ creativity and development and his team’s cohesion and chemistry could evolve. Through the use of the triangle offense, Jackson empowered his athletes to become more adaptive on the court, which may be one of the greatest secrets to his teams success.
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1 Heifetz, R.A., & Laurie, D.L. (1997). Mobilizing adaptive work: Beyond visionary leadership. In Conger, J.A., Spreizer, G.M., & Lawler, E.E. (Eds.), The leader's change handbook: An essential guide to setting direction and taking action (55-86). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. p. 65
2 Heifetz, R.A., & Laurie, D.L. (1997). Mobilizing adaptive work: Beyond visionary leadership. In Conger, J.A., Spreizer, G.M., & Lawler, E.E. (Eds.), The leader's change handbook: An essential guide to setting direction and taking action (55-86). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
3 Heifetz, R.A., & Linsky, M. (2002). A survival guide for leaders. Harvard Business Review, 80. p. 70
4 Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. p. 19
5 Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: The soul of success. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, p. 10
6 Helsing, D., & Lahey, L. (2010). Unlocking leadership potential: Overcoming immunities to change. In Bunker, K., Hall, D.T., & Kram, K.E. (Eds.), Extraordinary leadership: Addressing the gaps in senior executive development (69-94). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. p. 76
7 Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: The soul of success. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, p. 13; 158; 23
8 Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: The soul of success. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, p. 69
9 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
10 Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: The soul of success. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, p. 71
11 Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: The soul of success. New York, NY: The Penguin Press
12 Heifetz, R.A., & Laurie, D.L. (1997). Mobilizing adaptive work: Beyond visionary leadership. In Conger, J.A., Spreizer, G.M., & Lawler, E.E. (Eds.), The leader's change handbook: An essential guide to setting direction and taking action (55-86). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 73
13 Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: The soul of success. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, p. 62