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Research & Academic Writings

Constructive-Developmental Theory Case-Study: Phil Jackson’s Self-Transformational Mind for Leadership and Success in Athletics

Introduction: Phil Jackson is arguably the greatest athletic coach of all time, having won eleven NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson has also been a respected mentor for two of the greatest basketball players ever in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and he currently holds the record for highest winning percentage as a coach (Jackson & Delehanty, 2013). Yet, these remarkable accomplishments are not what make him truly stand out as a coach; rather, it is his more “spiritual” approach to the game that turns the most heads and makes the greatest impact on his teams’ success and players’ lives. The legendary coach interweaves lessons from Zen monks, the Lakota people, military leaders, leadership consultants, accomplished musicians, respected psychologists, and infamous writers into his team preparation plans throughout the season. He is more philosopher, spiritual seeker, and scholar than he is a sports-minded tactician, although he is tremendously athletic on a physical and mental level in his own right and won two NBA championships as a player. His quirkiness and unique approach to the game and life make for an interesting story-line with reporters, biographers, and producers—he is the “enlightened master” of the basketball world who marches to the beat of his own drum, knows how to manage “larger-than-life” egos, and bands teams together to win multitudes of championship rings. 

At face value, this well-known depiction of Jackson is undoubtedly fascinating; however, it does not explain the exact mechanisms behind his tremendous success and outstanding leadership ability. Rather than explore what Jackson knows and try to copy or emulate his unique path, the more compelling, inspirational, and educational perspective to take is how he understands what he knows. In order to gain this type of deeper understanding and appreciation for Jackson’s leadership capacities, Kegan's (1982, 1994) constructive developmental theory (CDT) is a powerful tool. CDT is an empirically-based psychological framework used to explain and support personal ego-identity development and growth. This literature review accordingly aims to illustrate: (1) a basic introduction to CDT to provide context for Jackson’s developmental order of mind, (2) provide an informal assessment of Jackson’s advanced level of identity and leadership development from the CDT perspective, (3) describe the ways in which this high order of development supports capacities for success as a transformational leader and coach in the athletic world, and (4) provide a number of conclusions and implications towards the future implementation of CDT within the sports world.

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Trevor Tierney