First, a huge disclaimer.
I don’t work in the NBA. I have no connections to anyone in the Golden State Warriors, True Love Worship Center International, or any of Mark Jackson’s previous employers. But I do know office politics when I see them. And I know pastors. And I love to follow the postmodern soap opera of NBA coaching. And I’m confident saying that in the final year of his contract, Mark Jackson made a living dancing along the combustible intersection of all three cultural fault lines – and it eventually blew up in his face.
For anyone who’d been following the saga of Jackson and the Golden State Warriors, the firing did not come as a shock. It barely even qualified as news. People saw this coming for months, perhaps even the entire season. On the surface, there are plenty of reasons why his stint as coach didn’t last longer than the three seasons in his contract, and when the news broke, capable analysts like CSN Bay Area’s Monte Poole did a great job of breaking down the sports-related reasons. And TrueHoop’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss provided a great overview of the duality of Jackson’s tenure, highlighting his strengths and weaknesses.
But I think if you look past the obvious stuff, there are some hidden lessons here. My sense, armchair quarterbacking though it may be, is that Mark Jackson is an excellent motivator, but his tenure was shipwrecked in three areas, and anyone who wants to be successful should heed them. These lessons are important for anyone who wants to be an effective basketball coach.
But for pastors, these lessons are absolutely critical.
Lesson #1: You can’t ignore the business side of things.
When I was considering launching a business-related venture with a friend of mine who owns his own business, one of the first things that he said to me was that if I was going to be successful, I would have two separate learning curves – learning to do the thing I wanted to be the best at, and also learning how to do it as a business. No matter what the business is, there are a whole set of skills related to how to bring it to market, find and retain customers, execute deliverables, and build a client or customer base, that are separate from the skills of being a good baker, attorney, musician, architect, or whatever.
From what I can see, Mark Jackson viewed his role as a basketball coach as completely separate and irrelevant from the business side of the Warriors organization. And while I think it’s healthy to have a certain amount of specialization so that people can concentrate on what they’re good at, in order for an organization to be successful, everyone needs a clear understanding of how their role fits into the larger whole, and I’m not sure if Mark Jackson and the upper management side were ever on the same page.
For months, sources reported on friction between Jackson and upper management, which led to a conflict that divided loyalties throughout the organization and even in his own staff. In a radio interview with Dan Patrick, Jackson talked about how important it is for people to “stay in their lane”:
“At the end of the day, I’m a guy that believes that you stay in your lane…you know how I am, you’ve watched how I handle people, it doesn’t match some of the things that are being said…I have a boss, and I talk to my boss and deal with my boss…I don’t know how to dance with the business folks, the other lane…I was on the mindset that basketball was basketball and anybody who had a mindset to talk about that, I could have a relationship with.”
Later Patrick asked Jackson if he failed to “play the game” for upper management:
“Did I play the game? Who’s game? My front office, yes. I did not play the other side, the business side… I didn’t go into the other side of people’s offices, and try to get out my lane and be running reckless all around the building, which I thought would be disrespectful… if the worst thing that can be said about me is that I didn’t [understand] the business side… well, that’s not why I was hired.”
These, in my opinion, are the words of a man who believes that his decision-making should never be questioned by those who are not in the trenches, day in and day out, doing the most meaningful work, which for Mark Jackson, meant the basketball side. In his view, anyone from the business side questioning his decisions or trying to provide input is being disrespectful.
And it’s no surprise that Mark Jackson is also a pastor, because many pastors have the same mindset. Particularly in the African-American church, where the pastor is often viewed as an unassailable authority on all matters of importance, many pastors tend to dismiss the feedback they receive from committee members, board members, deacons, or other subordinate leaders, because they feel that the important ministry work they perform justifies the validity of every decision they make.
But sometimes the business side becomes unavoidable. After all, it was the potential business impact to the NBA’s bottom line that made Donald Sterling expendable. And for pastors, sometimes it’s prudent to pay attention to the business side of things. It’s one thing to trust God and reach forward in faith despite not seeing evidence, but sometimes the evidence is part of the way God speaks.
After all, you can’t expect people to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ inside your church building if you lose your church building because you can’t pay the mortgage.
Lesson #2: Leadership must be multicultural to succeed.
It’s a generally accepted premise that Mark Jackson was loved by his players, especially his star players, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who had both beenvocal supporters of Jackson. It’s not surprising that Jackson, not only a former veteran NBA player, but also a respected high-profile pastor, would be a mentor figure for many of his players.
But for Mark Jackson, a successful coaching stint would’ve required not only reaching his mostly black roster of players, but his mostly white supervisors in the Warriors front office. Jackson is certainly not the first my-way-or-the-highway type of coach to find a measure of success in the NBA, but coaching longevity requires an ability to relate to different kinds of people. It doesn’t seem to be a complete coincidence that the one player on the Warriors roster that might’ve had cause for beef with Jackson was Australian center Andrew Bogut.
This is an especially salient issue because as a pastor of a black church, Jackson was probably used to people deferring to his leadership. But a more culturally competent leader might’ve recognized the additional layers of communication that exist beyond just what is said, and done more subtle work to placate his superiors. A more culturally competent leader might’ve picked up on the ways that such consistently public, consistently confident statements of faith might rub management the wrong way, especially after Jackson refused to move to a closer locale in order to continue pastoring his LA-area church. Where someone who grew up in church might hear a typical Mark Jackson press conference and think, “wow, here’s a guy grounded in faith who knows what’s important in life,” someone without that upbringing might think, “wow, here’s a guy who always thinks he’s right, no matter what.”
The irony here is that not only is this multicultural awareness important in corporate America, it’s just as important in the church, if not more so.
Much has been written and said about the ways in which white evangelicals have unwittingly contributed to racism in America, but for African-American pastors who minister to diverse congregations, the ecumenical landscape can be just as treacherous. Many of the committed, passionate churchgoers that these pastors end up shepherding come out of mainline traditions where the pastor is seen as less of an authority and more of a fungible employee, where the real power lies with the elder board or similar disciplinary body.
This dynamic can sometimes set up power struggles over church resources where the competing factions are divided across racial lines. And because in America we’ve been taught that racism is bad without knowing exactly what it is, the white people will vehemently deny that race has anything to do with it, despite operating from a set of norms and expectations that have racialized origins. (In their defense, these white people may not be used to having frank discussions about race, even if they attend a multicultural church. These norms at first.)
Culturally competent leaders can spot this dynamic coming, and use their multifaceted powers of persuasion to get everyone to the table and, if not hold hands, at least be able to listen to one another. This ability clearly eluded Mark Jackson, and it led to his downfall.
Which brings me to my final lesson:
Lesson #3: You must have enough humility to admit and learn from mistakes.
I agree with many of Jackson’s fans who say that he is a great motivator and a solid professional, but I have yet to see in any of his post-firing media appearances any hint of willingness to own up to his faults. If anything, I’ve seen a lot of the same defensive posturing. During the same Dan Patrick interview, he maintained that he isn’t someone who still has to prove he can coach, implying that plenty of other teams will be calling.
In this, he is partially right. Plenty of teams will be calling. I’ll be surprised if Mark Jackson isn’t coaching another NBA franchise next season. But it’s not exactly true that he has nothing to prove. Mark Jackson has proven that he can turn a decent squad into an overachiever, but he hasn’t proven he can turn a good squad into a contender. It’s possible that all owner Joe Lacob and the other faction of Warriors management were looking for was a willingness from Jackson to look in the mirror and make some adjustments.
The irony in all of this is that coaches are usually the ones who have to preach humility, flexibility, and accountability to the players. Yet the best example of humility in the NBA comes from its leading player. Newly-minted league Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant recently spent his entire MVP speech delivering a heartfelt, tear-soaked tribute to the people in his life that helped him become who he is. Not only does he call his mom “the real MVP” for sacrificing so he and his brother could eat, but he literally called out each teammate by name, even Caron Butler, who only arrived weeks prior.
In that one speech, Kevin Durant provided a timeless example of maturity that has the potential to outlast and overshadow any of his achievements on the court. I know KD isn’t perfect, and he draws technical just like the best of them, but there’s a reason why the other guys on his team, including embattled-lightning-rod-for-criticism Russell Westbrook, play so hard in supporting Durant’s quest to be the best.
When it comes to humility in leadership, Durant outcoached Jackson by a mile, and Kevin Durant isn’t even a head coach.
If all this sounds overly critical toward Jackson, it’s not from a place of malice. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mark Jackson, and I hope he can, pardon the ridiculous pun, rebound from this.
But if he doesn’t, if he continues to stay mired in the problems that dragged him down, then I and plenty of other onlookers will continue to use his catchphrase against him, initially coined in reference to an offensive player who’s making the defense look silly, but now thrown at a successful figure who can’t seem to get out of his own way:
“Mama, there goes that man.”
Whole fan bases shake their heads in disbelief.