Eleven Rings and a Chinese Parable

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Since my last post I’ve finished my graduate degree at University of Chicago, celebrated a very special 4 year anniversary and done a bit of traveling.  My family and girlfriend all came into Chicago for the graduation ceremony and we had a great time.   I just recently returned from a work trip to Vancouver, Canada, and I’m getting ready for an upcoming 3 week work trip to Israel.  2 weeks of work, and 1 week of vacation and sightseeing with my girlfriend.

Today I wanted to share one of the parables I read in Phil Jackson’s new book Eleven Rings.  This excellent book tells the story of the 11 championship rings Phil Jackson won while coach of the Chicago Bulls (he also won 2 as a player bringing his lifetime total to 13).  It contains many lessons in spirituality in leadership that I learned a great deal from.

The 1995-96 Bulls team is considered by many experts to be the best professional basketball team ever assembled.  When describing the 1995-1996 season Phil Jackson shares a parable about emperor Liu Bang, the first leader to consolidate China into a unified empire.  In the story, Liu Bang held a lavish banquet to celebrate his great victory and invited master Chen Chen, who had advised him during the campaign.  Chen Chen brought as his guests three of his disciples, who were perplexed by an enigma at the heart of the celebration.

When the master asked them to elaborate, they said that the emperor was sitting at the central table with his three heads of staff: Xiao He, who masterfully administered logistics; Han Xin, who led a brilliant military operation, winning every battle he fought; and Chang Yang, who was so gifted at diplomacy that he could get heads of state to surrender before the fighting began.  What the disciples had a hard time understanding was the man at the head of the table, the emperor himself.  “Liu Bang cannot claim noble birth,” they said, “and his knowledge of fighting, logistics, and diplomacy does not equal that of his heads of staff.  How is it then that he is emperor?”

The master smiled and asked them, “What determines the strength of a chariot’s wheel?”

“Is it not the sturdiness of the spokes?”  They replied.

“Then why is it that two wheels made of identical spokes differ in strength?”  asked the master.  “See beyond what is seen.  Never forget that a wheel is made not only of spokes, but also of the space between the spokes.  Sturdy spokes poorly placed make a weak wheel.  Whether their full potential is realized depends on the harmony between them.  The essence of wheel-making lies in the craftsman’s ability to conceive and create the space that holds and balances the spokes within the wheel.  Think now, who is the craftsman here?”

After a long silence, one of the disciples asked, “But master, how does a craftsman secure the harmony among the spokes?”

“Think of sunlight,” replied the master.  “The sun nurtures and vitalizes the trees and the flowers.  It does so by giving away its light.  But in the end, in which direction do they grow?  So it is with a master craftsman like Liu Bang.  After placing individuals in positions that fully realize their potential, he secures harmony among them by giving them all credit for their distinctive achievements.  And in the end, as the trees and flowers grow toward the sun, individuals grow toward Liu Bang with devotion.”

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