Coach Wooden - Leadership Lessons

Great leadership lessons by the legendary basketball coach John Wooden

The best leadership lessons come from successful people, who have taken risks, learned from their failures, and have achieved great things by remaining true to themselves and making a lasting impact on peoples’ lives.

Many of them are sport coaches, entrepreneurs, business managers, politicians, and people from all walks of life. Although there are tens of thousands of management books out there, I think that many of them are too academic, theoretical, and intellectual rather than practical. This is why I always seek to find those few that come from authentic people who have achieved significant things in their lives through all kinds of adversities.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden is one of them and his leadership lessons offer great insights on leadership.

The Wooden Effect – Life Leadership Lessons

John Wooden is considered the best basketball head coach of all time in American college basketball. In a career spanning for more than 40 years he built multiple teams and created an elite athletic program, leaving a lasting legacy that extends beyond the world of sports.

As a head coach at UCLA he won 10 national championships with four perfect seasons with a 30-0 game winning record and 88 consecutive victories. He was the first person to have been inducted in the Naismith Basketball Memorial Hall of Fame as both player and a coach. He also won in 2003 the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

John Wooden

Some of the most successful basketball players of all-time, such as NBA All-star Bill Walton and NBA’s all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had Coach Wooden as their mentor. They credit their life’s success to Wooden, along with hundreds of other famous athletes, leaders, politicians and people from all walks of life who have been influenced by his philosophy.

Wooden’s Leadership Lessons

There are hundreds of pages that I could write about the philosophy of Coach Wooden. In fact, there are multiple books and websites presenting his work in a more holistic way. But here, I would like to focus on the leadership lessons that have struck a particular chord with me and which I believe are the most important for any leader to consider.

The below leadership lessons are taken from Coach Wooden’s book: “Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organisation“.

Philosophy, Values, and Mindset

1. Good values attract good people

It all starts with your philosophy as a leader. What do you stand for? What is your belief system, mental model and values? Because it is your philosophy, values, mission, and vision that will define everything else that you and your organisation do.

However, as Coach Wooden says, leadership is more than just forcing people to do what you say. Because then you are acting like a prison guard rather than a leader. As a good leader, you need to bring people along the journey with you, creating belief in your philosophy and mission, defining a common set of values and creating an environment of integrity.

The next step is to advertise your identity in order to attract people that share similar values and principles. However, this doesn’t mean that you should hire people that are exactly like you. Diverse people can still have a shared or overlapping mental model. Without it, the team or organisation will be pulled into different directions and will not achieve much.

Successful Leadership is not about being tough or soft, sensitive, or assertive, but about a set of attributes. First and foremost is character.

John Wooden

Coach Wooden talks about the importance of character, not winning. As he says, it doesn’t matter how talented someone is. What really matters is their character. You cannot coach character. It starts with little things, from being punctual and respectful to others to putting in the effort and not cut corners. He talks about the importance of leading by example.

Nevertheless, he says that you need to beware of those who will do whatever it takes to win. You need to find the people who love the struggle of the journey and follow your principles. If you don’t then it takes one bad apple to ruin it all.

2. Lead with love

When leading people, you need to lead with love and put your heart in your work and those with whom you work. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to like everyone the same but your shouldn’t replace fairness with favouritism. In my personal experience as coach and mentor, I never liked everyone the same but still gave everyone equal chances and equal amount of attention.

Of course, there is time to be flexible, and there is time to be firm and knowing the difference is fundamental. If someone breaks a rule that doesn’t affect your values it may have been for a good reason and you need to be able to make a judgment. However, if someone goes against the values the organisation stands for, there is no room for flexibility.

Nevertheless, we are humans, and as humans we all have biases and blind spots. There was one time where I somehow decided in my head that someone didn’t deserve my attention, time or effort because I thought they didn’t have the potential. How wrong was I? Within a few months this individual proved to be the best in the team by a big margin. I felt terrible having made such a quick judgment and letting my bias cloud my judgment. This was a very difficult lesson for me.

Despite what you think of someone always lead with love and treat everyone with empathy. In the end even if they fail, and some do, at least you will have done the best from your side to give them the opportunity to succeed.

3. Call yourself a teacher

According to Coach Wooden’s leadership lessons, effective leaders are first and foremost good teachers. As he says “we are in the education business”. People in your team have brains, unlike ‘scientific’ management would assume, and they need to be fed with constant stream of knowledge and experience in order to grow. To turn a group of people into a team with shared beliefs, values, standards, principles, ways of working, and goals, you need to be able to teach them.

But teaching requires patience as it takes time for people to go through the learning curve, and they make many mistakes along the way. In fact, you should expect mistakes or else the team is not trying enough. The more hard-working the team and the more they are experimenting with different things, the more mistakes they make but also the more they end up accomplishing. Furthermore, different people learn at different speeds and you need to be very patient and flexible to accommodate everyone’s learning pace.

Being a leader can bring complacency. People start listening to you, there is some success and suddenly you have all the answers. This is the point where most of us believe in the hype around us and stop learning. But coach Wooden says that it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.

In essence, effective leadership is creating an environment where people are not afraid to admit that they do not know something and ask questions. Once you create a continuous learning environment and see yourself as a teacher, you will become a better leader with much more impact on others.

4. Emotionalism is your enemy, intensity is your friend

A leader with a volatile temperament is vulnerable and so is his or her team. Emotions interfere with good judgment. As the ancient stoic philosopher Seneca suggests, when you feel your emotions are taking over you need to step away for a few hours or a day and not take any action. Circumstances don’t change because you get angry and many times our reaction is based on our perception of a situation, rather than the actual situation. Things always look different once you have cooled off.

If you let your emotions take over, you’ll be outplayed.

John Wooden

Most Eastern philosophies and religions but also Stoic Philosophy talk about finding your emotional balance. When you win, do not put a massive show of celebration. While when things go wrong do not show uncontrolled anger and emotion. You will probably tell me at this point that what I am saying goes against the popular corporate managerial advice of “Celebrating Success”. To be honest, I am not sure where this originated from or what purpose it serves. Teams that have achieved their goals, they know it. They do not need a manager to remind them to “celebrate success” in a forced way. In fact, too much celebration shows lack of balance and when things go wrong this can lead to very negative reactions as well.

On the other hand, intensity, when correctly directed, can bring improvement and results. Therefore Coach Wooden’s advice is simple, control emotion or emotion will control you and do not confuse intensity with emotionalism.

5. Adversity is your asset

This my favourite out of all coach Wooden’s leadership lessons. Although you cannot control fate and circumstances, you can control how you react to them.

Personally, I have never been involved in a project that didn’t have adversity. There have always been bad luck, unexpected delays and issues, problem with team members, and all kinds of obstacles. The question is not how to avoid adversity, but on the opposite how to expect it, accept it, and make the best out of it.

As the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”. The idea is not how to not have any obstacles but how to build from them and make the best of whatever life throws at you. Unfortunately, some leaders tend to blame failure on fate, not on their lack of preparedness for the realities of life. Making errors and mistakes is part of the journey. What counts is what you make out of it.


6. Lead by the light, not by fear

Quite often, when a team is new, the leader tends to be more directive and more focused on setting up rules and creating discipline. This sets up the standards, within which the team can operate. However, according to the situational leadership model, once the team moves beyond this initial phase, the style of the leader needs to change to coaching, then to supporting, and then eventually to delegating.

The problems start when leaders get locked into rigid rules and penalties, never evolving beyond the first stage of team development. Teams are complex adaptive systems and evolve at different speeds through different phases. As a leader you need to also be co-evolving with the team. As coach Wooden says, strong suggestions and teachings have much deeper influence on people than being locked into a long list of rigid rules. This doesn’t mean that there will not be any rules but rather that you should employ common sense on how they should be applied.

Punishment invokes fear. I wanted a team whose members were filled with pride, not fear.

John Wooden

The team should be led by the light, not fear.

It is impossible to influence anyone in a positive manner over the long term if you insult, antagonise and alienate him or her. People require patience and effort. Rules and punishment work in the short term but won’t bring the best out of people. Also, in terms of criticism, you should focus on genuine feedback that will drive improvement across the team and create a better culture and working environment.

However, if you don’t really mean your praise, avoid saying it. If you do, say it in a measured way, and always leave room for improvement so that your people always strive to improve and grow.

7. It takes 10 hands to score a basket

The vast majority of coaches will tell you that the “We” in a team is more important than the “Me”.

Phil Jackson, the most successful basketball coach with 11 NBA championships writes is his book Eleven Rings about the discussion he had with the biggest star of his team, Michael Jordan. “Michael, there is no I in the Team” and Michael replied “Yes, but there is I in the Win”. I think this demonstrates clearly the mentality of superstars.

Despite Jordan’s talent, the Chicago Bulls were struggling to win in the playoffs. All of their opponents knew how to stop him from scoring. When Phil Jackson joined the team he implemented the team-oriented triangle offence. This was a pivotal moment in the history of the Bulls. But Michael had to learn how to pass the ball to his teammates and not attempt to score every basket on his own. He had to accept the fact that his personal statistics were going to take a hit in order for his team to win. As Michael talks about it in The Last Dance, it was very difficult for him to shift his mindset but when he did, success followed.

In his leadership lessons, coach Wooden similarly talks about the star of the team being the team. Of course, there will always be top performers but they need to be ready to share the ball, their ideas and knowledge.

Furthermore, you need to go out of your way to praise publicly all those ‘Quiet’ performers who get the job done. Everyone contributes to the result. If not, then what are they doing on the team in the first place? Finally, great teams are not the ones with the most talent but with the best mix of talent and team-players.

8. Make greatness attainable by all

Everyone can achieve greatness and be the best they can be. Everyone has potential. Often, the media, managers, coaches and other experts will try to find the best player or employee to award. According to coach Wooden, this goes against his belief about success. For him, everyone’s greatness should be measured against their own potential and nothing else. Of course, he knew that players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar were having much greater impact than everyone else. But they wouldn’t be able to have that impact they had, had it not been for their team-mates. Everyone in the team should be an achiever on their own right.

This is why he talks in his book about choosing your awards carefully.

I have worked in organisations in the past, which promoted individuals through their awards rather than teams. This was a major mistake, as from one side, people got jealous why someone else was selected over them, and from the other side it promoted internal competition instead of team spirit.

As a leader you need to make clear that every single job counts, or else why the job exists in the first place. ou need to genuinely believe in the hidden potential of all and create an environment that rewards hard work and improvement. In other words, create a learning organisation and believe in everyone in your team. People will surprise you, when you least expect it, and it can be a real eye-opener.

There are always unexpected opportunities in life and everyone in your team needs to be mentally prepared to seize those opportunities. Everyone needs to be ready when serendipity happens.

Focus, Planning and Preparedness

9. It is all about the small things

Great leaders do not leave anything to chance, and they are not sloppy on the details. Everything you and your team does matters. All the small things accumulate to something bigger. As I mention in my article on Chris Hadfield’s life and leadership lessons, you need to sweat the small stuff. This is what makes the difference between high and average performance.

In addition, as coach Wooden mentions in his leadership lessons, you need to define average as above average, and make excellence a habit for everyone in the team. Sometimes, very talented people become sloppy and fail to perform because of that. So, it is key to highlight that excellence can come from anyone regardless of their talent. You shouldn’t allow yourself to be blind-sided by talent. However, sometimes a high-performer can make great things happen in an unconventional way. This is the only time you should be tolerant to it as long as there is no negative impact on the team.

Furthermore, when it comes to the management of time, the same applies. Every hour counts. A well-organised leader can achieve in an hour what it takes others days to achieve. The difference between success and failure is preparedness and hard work.

It is quite common for people to spend most of their working days on meetings, without any preparation and achieving no improvement or goal. As coach Wooden says, you need to plan every meeting as if your future depends on it. Every meeting with your team is an opportunity to improve on something, share information or make a decision. Don’t let time go to waste, and do not mistake activity with achievement.

10. Seek significant change

Sometimes it is easy to become complacent, once the team achieves some of the initial goals they had set out to achieve. When this happens, people feel satisfied, and stop trying as hard. Eventually they never get engrossed in the status quo and never make it to the next level, leading to failure.

If you don’t seek change, your competitors and the wider context around you will still change. Everything in nature and life is in constant motion. We are always on our way to somewhere but never quite reaching. This is what makes life interesting and worth living. Yet somehow we get complacent and stop evolving.

As coach Wooden says in his leadership lessons, never assume your team is as good as it can be. Characteristically, he mentions an old Gym they were using for practice. Every time they team would lose or not perform well, there was always the excuse of using the old Gym, which was not fit for purpose. What is the old Gym in your case that is holding you back? You need to always see solutions rather than excuses and stop holding your team back.

However, leadership requires more listening than talking. It requires surrounding yourself with people strong enough to change your mind. People who ask questions, express opinions, seek improvements and challenge the status quo. This can make weak leaders uncomfortable. A leader who thinks that she or he knows it all will eventually lead to failure. Nevertheless, although you should welcome contrary ideas, never welcome contrarians, whose only purpose is to create disruption.

11. Don’t look at the scoreboard

Most great players and coaches never get distracted by abstract, far-away goals they cannot control. Instead they take a game at a time, they focus on hard work, preparedness, and intelligent planning. Because at the end of the day, this is what is within their control and in the long-term brings success.

If you want to extend a winning streak, forget about it. If you want to break a losing streak, forget about it. Forget about everything except concentrating on hard work and intelligent planning.

John Wooden

As coach Wooden mentions in his leadership lessons, improvement exists in the present, not the future. It is easy to get distracted by future goals, challenges, competitors, worries, hopes, and dreams. But, long-term success requires short-term focus. If you keep looking at the scoreboard and the competitors, then you fail to focus on the ball. Of course, there needs to be preparation and respect for competition but the focus should be on what the team is doing every moment, every day, here, now.

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