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When I read the book ‘Eleven Rings: The soul of success’ by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty , the legendary basketball coach, I could relate his 11 tips for leadership as good points for Scrum Masters.

With eleven titles to his credit, helping the Chicago Bulls win six times and the LA Lakers win five times, Phil Jackson knows what it takes to build great teams and help them succeed – consistently!

In this book, he distils leadership styles and actions to eleven points.

We talk about a Scrum Masters role as a leadership role, something that can be successful by influence and not authority.

  1. Lead From the Inside Out

    In the PM Power approach to leadership development, we combine the hard aspects as well as the soft aspects. An effective leader is one who can manage outside, by mastering inside.

    When one leads from inside out, the genuineness of conversations establishes true connections with people, and everyone starts to listen more to what you say.

  2. Bench the Ego

    Every action, it is said, has an equal and opposite reaction.

    This is true for leaders too. When some decisions are forced on people, there is invariably a tendency to resist, particularly if it involves change.

    As a Scrum Master, one needs to be able to quickly gain the consensus of the team. To do that the Scrum Master should also listen and create a safe environment for everyone to express themselves.

  3. Let Each Player Discover His Own Destiny

    Jackson says, “I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.” 

    This translates into enabling safe spaces where each person can exhibit and share their courage, mutual respect, and resilience.

    This also encourages the team to go beyond narrowly defined set of duties and swarm as needed, to ensure team success.

  4. The Road to Freedom is a Beautiful System

    When each person in the team is actively aware of what the others are doing and where the team is moving, it enables smooth self-organization and collective ownership. The triangle system that is attributed to Phil Jackson, is a fitting example of having a common structure that is well understood, while providing a chance for creativity.

  5. Turn the Mundane into the Sacred

    Even for well knit teams, it is worthwhile to have some formality in terms of events [used to also be called ceremonies] that are also supported by team norms.

    What might otherwise be considered as a routine – say the daily standup – could become important points of sync up when infused with some formalism. Phil Jackson also introduced meditation practices for the team to help the players focus, unwind, and stay energetic.

  6. One Breath = One Mind

    A simple technique to get everyone aligned and in sync just before any significant event. Whether it is a crucial meeting, where consensus needs to be reached in time or the start of a release cycle, helping everyone spend some silent, reflective time together helps align the breathing, which is particularly useful in playing tandem, or like trapeze artists, when there are hand-offs to be executed as the project progresses

  7. The Key to Success is Compassion

    Helping the team understand and internalize the scrum value of respect for others, will lead to greater empathy for both the other team members as well as customers. That understanding will propel the team to go the extra mile when needed, to ensure that the promises to the users are always the highest priority.

  8. Keep Your Eye on the Spirit, Not on the Scoreboard

    This is the essential difference between DOING Agile and BEING Agile. Or not being obsessed only with some vanity metrics. When the core principles and the team values are always at the back of every thought and action, a team can focus on internalizing the values and principles of Agility. When the emphasis is to do it by the book, one may tend to be more worried about checking the boxes and ignore the outputs and outcomes.

  9. Sometimes You Have to Pull Out the Big Stick

    This is tricky to directly interpret for a Scrum Master, as the emphasis is usually to be a ‘servant leader’ who gets results through influence. This is usually true in an ideal world. Sometimes, a Scrum Master needs to be creative to highlight some issues within the team or with specific individuals, so that they can realize the impact of their action or inaction.

  10. When in Doubt, Do Nothing

    One of the key responsibilities of a Scrum Master if to remove impediments. This may not be quite simple at times. For an action-oriented person, it may be difficult to not do anything and observe the situation resolve itself. But, sometimes, it is best to not do anything. The triaging technique used by many teams – including emergency medical response teams – also suggests that in some situations, it is best to not do anything. This will come with experience.

  11. Forget the Ring

    This is also a point that is easier said than done. When one is so involved in the action, it is not easy to ignore or forget the result and the urge to win. Phil Jackson says, ‘obsessing about winning is a loser’s game.’ The main reason he says, is that such a focus would lead to one losing control of one’s emotions. He says, ‘The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.’

The book has a lot more detailed examples including situations involving some of the high performers who were more self-centric and concerned with their own success and image, and how he was able to help them turn into more team players and mentors to other less experienced players.