Learning Leadership from Coach John Wooden


The late and legendary John Wooden is regarded by many to be one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. In his storied 40-year career as a coach his name became synonymous with success, having had only one losing season: his first. As the head of UCLA’s men’s basketball program, his teams won 10 National Championships in a 12 year span – 7 of which were in a row – and had four undefeated seasons. Prior to his death in 2010 at the age of 99, he was honored in the College Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Success leaves clues, and hungry leaders who are in search of effective principles to use with their teams have much to gain from the “Wizard of Westwood.” For years I have used his quotes and examples in my seminars, and after countless remarks about how helpful they have been to attendees, I want to share some with you in this piece. Following are 5 principles you can apply to help build your own championship team.
1. Don’t become infected with success. Far too many leaders and organizations for that matter, can’t survive success. They develop a been-there-done-that attitude, grow complacent and stop executing the essential disciplines that made them successful in the first place. Leaders stop holding people accountable, stop recruiting, stop training people, and the list continues. Becoming infected with success has nothing to do with your skills, knowledge or talent as a leader; it’s all rooted in your mindset. Wooden said it well, “You become infected with success when you think that your past wins future games.” The mindset to live in the past, both in the victories and defeats, is a dangerous trap that will cause you to let up. Rehearsing past setbacks, defeats and rejections can make you hesitate to take the next shot, while reliving past wins (the big month, quarter, or year) will cause you to sit on the ball when you should be running up the score. As a leader you can’t borrow credibility from what you did once upon a time. Shift your focus away from “living” in the past to “learning” from the past; prove yourself over again each day; and attempt, as Wooden put it, to make it a “masterpiece.” If you’re not doing this as a leader, I promise your team isn’t either.

2. Bring out the best in people. Wooden said, “You don’t handle people. You handle farm animals. You work with people.” Bringing out the best in people is purely an issue of skillset, and if you haven’t developed it you’ll find yourself more often “handling” people than “working” with them. Here are some simple yet overlooked ways to help you develop the human capital on your team. First, keep respect and consideration for others foremost in your mind. People don’t buy into leaders who bully, continually berate, or only tell people the ways they’ve fallen short. You can’t expect to bring out the best in people if you can’t even respect them as individuals. Next, try to make the work environment fun – just not at someone else’s expense. We spend a lot of time in the workplace, and people that have fun are generally more productive, and more engaged. Lastly, seek out individual opportunities to deliver a sincere compliment to someone. The quicker you can do this following a productive behavior or performance, the more it will mean to the individual, and the more likely you are to see that same result again. Remember that sincerity, optimism, and enthusiasm are more welcome than sarcasm, pessimism, and getting personal.

3. Don’t blame, don’t complain, and don’t make excuses. This is pretty straightforward so I won’t spend much time on it other than to say: If your mindset is to blame others and make excuses for why the job didn’t get done, you’re teaching your people by example. Wooden understood this, and neither gave nor accepted excuses.

4. Dispense discipline and accountability effectively. This takes a blend of both skillset and mindset. Knowing how to hold people accountable is important, but the follow through in actually holding a performer accountable is equally essential. Some of us know exactly what to do, but we choose not to in order to avoid potential discomfort, or hurt feelings. Understand though, that accountability, discipline, and criticism aren’t tools to humiliate, demean, or punish. Their objectives are to correct, redirect, and to improve performance; to correct something that is preventing better results. Protect your culture, team morale, and the customer experience, and help the person by caring enough to confront them and potentially make you both uncomfortable as you exercise this leadership duty. Very simply, coach Wooden said “Even if there is a price to be paid, don’t be afraid to use appropriate discipline. It may hurt in the short term, but will pay dividends in the future.” Rest assured Wooden wasn’t slacking up on accountability in the midst of UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. He was holding his team accountable daily both on and off the court.

5. Treat people fairly. Don’t fall for the politically correct nonsense that treating people fairly means you have to treat everyone alike. Fairness is giving everyone the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone equally. That’s unfair because not everyone deserves equal treatment. Now obviously you treat everyone alike in terms of courtesy, respect, and regard as a human being. Those are non-negotiables. In terms of opportunity, rewards, privileges, and even scheduling however, you should dispense according to what people earn and deserve. Now Wooden was very good at treating people in accordance with this, understanding that what people gain too easily they esteem too lightly. In doing so he enhanced teamwork, and prevented entitlement form taking over.
As you work to build a team of champions, which of these basic principles have you gotten away from? Prioritize one or two key things you need to start doing – or stop doing – to coach like Wooden and leave your lasting leadership legacy.

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