A championship culture is different than a winning culture. If Derek Fisher can keep that and everything else Phil Jackson helped him learn in mind, he can build a championship culture in the New York Knicks basketball team. This is the key to long-term success.

Fisher seems to have started well. In keeping with the fundamentals of executive onboarding he has gotten a head start and begun managing his message in yesterday’s press conferences. Now it’s all about the team.

The Knicks have not won a championship in 41 years. They’ve had the money. They’ve had the star players. But they have been unable to pull it all together. They have a long way to go to do that. As Jackson put it, The ideal way to win a championship is step by step.” And step one is building a championship culture.

As discussed in a previous article on how organizational culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage, In sustainable, championship cultures, behaviors (the way we do things here) are inextricably linked to relationships, informed by attitudes, built on a rock-solid base of values, and completely appropriate for the environment in which the organization chooses to operate. This is where Fisher must start. Building this from the outside in:

Environment is about context and perspective. Jackson put it well, “The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way.”

Fisher needs to start by changing the conversation, getting away from intrasquad squabbles and focusing on the bigger, championship picture.

Values is about what matters. And it’s not winning every game at all cost. Again, quoting Jackson, “being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way.”

Fisher needs to focus on the long-term championship culture, not on winning every game in turn.

Attitude is the pivot point. As Jackson put it, “you have to have a sense of confidence about what you’re doing. You have to be a salesman, and you have to get your players, particularly your leaders, to believe in what you’re trying to accomplish on the basketball floor.”

Fisher needs to change his players’ fundamental belief structure to get them to believe they can be champions.

Relationships are the heart of teamwork. As Jackson put it “Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We.” His actions matched his words on this. He benched Kobe Bryant for not passing.

Fisher must take no prisoners on the way to creating a team. The Triangle Offense is optional. Playing as a team is not.

Behaviors are where the rubber meets the court. The team must make winning a habit on the way to its championships. As Jackson points out, “We definitely want to make the playoffs — that’s a goal for us. We won’t know how far we can go in the playoffs for a long time. To make the playoffs is a goal we think we can accomplish. This is going to be a process. You’re not going to see a finished product for a while.”

Yes, a championship culture is different than a winning culture. On the way, Fisher needs to get the team into the habit of winning.

Implications for you

This is true for almost any team.

  • Create an environment, context and perspective with the best possible conditions for success.
  • Focus everyone on values rooted in what matters over the long-term.
  • Instill an attitude of confidence.
  • Take no prisoners on relationships. Your players should get along or get gone.
  • Drive behaviors that create winning habits.


Click here for an overall executive summary of the New Leader’s Playbook articles on Forbes and links to each of the individual articles organized by category.