Oswald Letter

12 Wonderful Lessons from John Wooden

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden died on June 4 at the age of 99. During his coaching career his teams won more than 80 percent of their games. At UCLA, his teams won an astonishing 10 NCAA national championships during his final 12 years of coaching, including seven in a row. Wooden was a talented coach, teacher, and leader, and much can be learned from his philosophy. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite quotes and lessons from John Wooden.

More than a half century ago John Wooden created his Pyramid of Success. The Pyramid contains 15 building blocks of success, including industriousness, loyalty, initiative, skill, enthusiasm, and self-control. In creating the Pyramid, Wooden chose for his two cornerstones industriousness and enthusiasm, and the capstone on the Pyramid is competitive greatness.

So why did he choose industriousness as one of his cornerstones? Because Wooden knew the value of hard work. “Success travels in the company of very hard work. There is no trick, no easy way.” And the choice of enthusiasm for his second cornerstone? “Your energy and enjoyment, drive and dedication will stimulate and greatly inspire others.” And finally, about competitive greatness as his capstone, he said, “Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day.”

All of this also applies to those of us in business. If you want to be successful in your job, it requires hard work. If you want to be an effective leader, show your enthusiasm for your work. It will inspire those around you. And if you want to achieve competitive greatness, give your job your all each and every day. Nothing fancy here, but Wooden was never fancy, just effective.

Wooden also had a list of 12 Lessons in Leadership. And even though a couple of the lessons sound like they’re specific to the sport he coached, they’re not.

Lesson #1. Good values attract good people. As a manager, part of your responsibility is to build a strong team. To do so you must be able to attract good people. Wooden’s first lesson reminds us that if your value system is strong, you’ll be able to hire the type of people you need on your team.

Lesson #2. Love is the most powerful four-letter word. Talking about love in the workplace can be a slippery slope, but the thought here is that being caring and supportive of the people you lead will ultimately be more effective than screaming expletives.

Lesson #3. Call yourself a teacher. If you want to be a leader, be a teacher. Show people how you want things done. Teach them how to do their jobs better. Invest your time and energy in improving them, and they’ll make the team better.

Lesson #4. Emotion is your enemy. See Lesson #2. Losing control of your emotions, at work as much as anywhere, is a losing proposition. As a leader, it’s important that you manage your emotions instead of letting them manage you.

Lesson #5. It takes 10 hands to make a basket. OK, this one is specific to basketball, but the lesson is important at work. You need everyone to contribute if you’re going to be successful as a team. I had a coach who liked to say, “Like a chain, the team is only as strong as its  weakest link.” Same thing goes at work. If you want to really be successful, you need everyone working toward the same goals.

Lesson #6. Little things make big things happen. I’ve never been a big believer in finding a “silver bullet” that’s going to be the answer to all my problems at work. It’s doing the little things right and doing them consistently that is going to lead to the big successes. Wooden said it this way: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

Lesson #7. Make each day your masterpiece. This is a great reminder that we need to give our best day in and day out. Things don’t necessarily go the way we plan every day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it. You control how you deal with the challenges you face each and every day.

Lesson #8. The carrot is mightier than the stick. You might be seeing a theme with Wooden’s advice. He believed in encouragement, not punishment. He believed in caring, not scaring. Incentives and praise are more likely to earn you respect and loyalty than anything else.

Lesson #9. Make greatness attainable by all. On a sports team and at work, it takes the contributions of many to be successful. If the team is only as good as that weakest link, then you want every team member to be strong. People want to succeed — they want to be great. Make sure you give them an opportunity.

Lesson #10. Seek significant change. When Wooden included this in his list of leadership lessons, he was a young teacher and coach. Yet even then, he understood that if you want to make something better, including yourself, you needed to set the goal high so that the change was obvious to all. And as he so aptly put it, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”

Lesson #11. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Again, this sounds like it applies only to sports, but that’s just not true. In a world that looks for instant gratification, people often get caught up in monitoring and managing short-term results. Make sure you prepare well, work hard, and set your goals high — the long-term results will be there.

Lesson #12. Adversity is your asset. Coach Wooden said, “Adversity is the state in which man easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.” That quote makes me smile because it’s so true. We’ve all faced adversity and know how lonely it can be.  But often the greatest opportunities present themselves when the circumstances seem most dire. Make sure you’re prepared for adversity and you’ll be ready to take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

John Wooden was a teacher and a coach, yet the life lessons he taught his students and players apply to each and every one of us as we perform our jobs daily. Take the things he taught to heart and it will make you a better manager and, ultimately, a better person. And what’s more important than that?

3 thoughts on “12 Wonderful Lessons from John Wooden”

  1. Our VP HR circulated this article. I just had to respond that simple wisdom like John Wooden’s are in too short a supply these days; and yet are so profound when considered. I will refer to these 12 Lessons in Leadership again and again!

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