The Teacher as Leader: Paul Samuelson and Phil Jackson

Posted 12.14.2009

Some of you, having read the title of this post, are likely asking yourself, “What could possibly be the connection between a Nobel Prize winning economist and a 10 time NBA championship coach?”  Fair question.  I’d just ask that you bear with me for a few paragraphs because I think there is a common lesson to be learned from the life of Paul Samuelson and the career thus far of Phil Jackson.  But first, a bit of background.

Psamuelson Paul Samuelson died over the weekend at the age of 94. To say that he shaped the field of economics in the 20th century and into the 21st is an understatement. As two of his colleagues at MIT once wrote, “he has been more than a role model;  he has been the role.”  Samuelson shaped the practice of economics through his book The Foundations of Economic Analysis and made his discipline accessible to millions through his textbook, Economics.  He had a hand in teaching at least seven other Nobel laureates and reached at least four million students around the globe over 60 years (I was one of them.) with his textbook. His theoretical contributions are too numerous to mention here but include the idea of the multiplier effect, the theory of public goods, linear programming and the correspondence principle which shows the link between the behavior of individuals and the stability of the entire economy.  Probably his greatest accomplishment was  developing what he called the neoclassical synthesis. His big idea was that when an economy is near full employment, the forces of supply and demand will create equilibrium. But, when employment falls (as it has so dramatically this year), then government must intervene through spending, tax cuts and lowering interest rates to keep the economy going. Fortunately for the global economy, a lot of finance ministers around the world were schooled in the Samuelson approach and followed his teachings late last year and early this year.  (Check out the New York Times or the Financial Times  for more on Paul Samuelson.)

Philjackson Phil Jackson, on the other hand, is still very much alive.  He came to mind today when I read a story in the Sports section of the New York Times about how Kurt Rambis, who used to play for Jackson in LA, is working to install the triangle offense in his new job as head coach of the (relatively woeful) Minnesota Timberwolves.  Basketball aficionados know that Jackson first used the triangle with the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls and has since gone on to use it in coaching the Lakers to four championships. Jackson learned the triangle from a veteran coach named Tex Winter who had learned it from a USC and Iowa coach named Sam Barry. The triangle (which is explained in this graphic from the Times) is so simple it’s hard. As Rambis said, “It really teaches players how to play. It teaches players how to move without the basketball, how to read defenses, how to play together.”

Here’s what I think is the thread that ties the Samuelson and Jackson stories together in a inspiring way for leaders. Both of these men became experts in their chosen fields and both benefited from the teachings of others. They both, in turn, dedicated significant portions of their careers to refining what they learned and then passing those lessons on to others. Both Samuelson and Jackson were links in a chain of learning that began several generations before them and now extends to generations beyond their own. 

In the day to day pressure of leadership, it’s easy to forget what shaped you as a leader and way too easy to overlook the opportunities you have to shape the next generation of leaders. Those opportunities exist in any field of leadership whether it’s economics, sports or anything else you’re involved in.

So, as this week begins and 2009 draws to an end, here are a few questions to consider. What valuable knowledge have you learned from others?  What are you doing to build on that knowledge and pass it on?  What difference might that make?