Before a long road trip, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, used to give his players an assigned book to read. Jackson would select these books specifically for each player based on what he knew about them. He put a lot of thought into it.
For example, on one long West Coast trip he assigned “Song of Solomon” to Michael Jordan, “The Ways of White Folks” to Scottie Pippen, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to John Paxson, “On the Road” to Will Purdue, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” to B.J. Armstrong, and “Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks” to Stacey King.
He had varying levels of success with this project. Some players got into it and always did their reading. Some never bothered to open their book to page one.
Say what you will about NBA players but they are not known as big literary types. But converting the Chicago Bulls into the Toni Morrison Book Club wasn’t Jackson’s goal. What he wanted to do was send a message to them – that he knew certain things about them, he took the time to recognize them as individuals, and he cared.
Basketball players make millions of dollars a year. Monetarily, they’re all set and most coaches would treat them as such. Caring is not part of the standard equation. But throughout his coaching career Jackson made sure his players knew he didn’t regard them as disposable, easily replaced cogs.
Regardless of who you are, human beings universally like to be recognized as individuals. Although Jackson never became buddy-buddy with his players, because at some point he might have to cut or trade them, he treated each of them as individuals worthy of respect. He cared enough about them to give them a gift specially tailored to them. The players loved it and they responded by helping Jackson win 11 (11!) NBA championships.
Some critics might say “Oh yeah, coaching is easy when you’ve got Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant.” But NBA history is filled with stories of teams stocked with stars who ultimately underperformed. Michael Jordan never won a championship until Jackson came aboard. As soon as he did, they won six. The Lakers, who had both Shaq and Kobe, lost every year in the playoffs prior to Jackson’s arrival. That didn’t change until he became coach and they won it all in his first year.
Delivering value by caring – that something leaders do. The only reason it doesn’t happen more often is it requires a lot of effort and thought. Much easier to scream, bark orders, and reduce people’s value to a number on a balance sheet. But that’s a dumb method that only produces short term, if any, results. The long term solution for bringing out the best in your employees is caring and giving them respect.