the circle secret of winning teams

the circle secret of winning teams

There’s a story about Phil Jackson, famed coach of the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers, who would meet with every player one by one at the start of every season. He’d draw a circle on a board and ask, “If this circle is the team, where do you see yourself?”

His theory was that he could never have a winning team if the players felt they were outside the circle. Everyone needed a place. Everyone needed a say. The stars in the middle of these circles – the Michael Jordans, the Shaquille O’Neals – had reason to include others out of their own self-interest (to win!), not necessarily because they felt it was the right thing to do. In his book Eleven Rings, Jackson talks about the first time he asked Kobe Bryant where he saw himself. Kobe put himself at the very center of the circle. When asked why he said, “Because I ask myself, if anyone on the team doesn’t feel part of the circle or isn’t doing their best, I ask, what am I doing to help them feel part of the team?” In other words, Bryant saw his privilege as a responsibility to make others feel included.

Leading Your Team from the Circle

The bottom line is that as leaders who want to have a winning team, it is our job to know exactly where our people are in the circle. All our organizations have some people who naturally and easily feel part of the circle. Yet we know that diverse teams where people feel included perform better and make better decisions. If introverts feel out of the circle in our team, we miss their wisdom. If women and people of color feel excluded, then they won’t ever perform at their best. If people who challenge the status quo feel outside the circle, we won’t ever have the divergent thinking we need for innovation. You get the idea. Leading from the circle requires listening and helping those at the center of the circle to listen deeply to the experiences of those who feel left out. This requires empathy and honesty about who is in and who is not.

The Circle Frames our Largest Problems

I have applied the circle metaphor as a way for those with more privilege to think about how to wisely use that privilege for the common good. Two of societies’ biggest current challenges serve as examples: Climate change and the COVID pandemic.

Climate change can’t be solved by one nation, it requires a team effort. Those at the center of the circle need to think about the needs of those on the outside of the circle. Developed nations like the United States and Canada built their economies on the back of carbon emissions and have the most resources to solve the problem, yet the largest net new polluters are in the developing world.  We will only reach a solution when those at the center think about how they can help those who were left out of the previous boom.

The COVID pandemic serves as another example. Rich nations have had unparalleled privilege in our access to vaccines. Relatively little effort was put into thinking about how to ramp up production so vaccines could be deployed globally. The consequence is that new variants like Delta emerge from the developed world, bringing on successive waves even in largely vaccinated countries. Imagine if from the beginning, full out effort had been made to think of how to meet the needs of those not at the center of the circle?

Many of our greatest problems stem from not thinking of who and whose interests must be considered in the circle. For example, nature has hardly been considered in major societal decision making for decades, even though clearly we can’t win as a species if the rest of nature doesn’t thrive. When we take the needs of nature into consideration, and give it voice in the circle, we find new ways to win. A great example of a win is in marine protected areas and “no catch” zones. Almost everywhere in the world where protected areas have been established, the catch of fish outside those zones has increased. By considering the needs of nature and humans, we all win.

Thanks to Phil Jackson for this simple idea. Our job as leaders is to include everyone in the circle, not only because it is the right thing to do but because you won’t ever win long term unless you do.


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored nine best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

More Posts

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Looking for business advice or more information?
Book Dr. John Izzo