leader network logo

Leader of the Month for November 2006:

John Wooden


Background to This Feature

What an amazing man John Wooden is! Coach Wooden is a teacher, instructing scores of players that learned from his tutelage; an achiever, having attained unparalleled success in his profession; a role model, exhibiting the highest traits of character and principle in his dealings with people; a leader, influencing countless generations of coaches with his insights; and an innovator, producing resource materials such as the Pyramid of Success he formulated years ago. Coach Wooden did not receive any pre-set list of questions to prepare responses in advance of our August 2006 conversation. This fact makes the profound insights he shares all the more remarkable. As you read through Coach Wooden's answers to questions about leadership, consider that his wisdom has been gained through his 96 years on this earth as a tremendous teacher, coach, and leader.

To enable Coach Wooden's insights and story to come alive, LeaderNetwork.org has provided two ways for you to glean his wisdom: (1) by reading about Coach Wooden below and (2) by listening to the audio of the interview with Coach Wooden.

In order to begin playing the audio in a separate window, click here Wooden audio. To download the podcast of the interview, copy and paste the following RSS link into your preferred podcast software:  http://www.leadernetwork.org/john_wooden_leadership_podcast.rss john_wooden_podcast

John Wooden Background

Hall of Fame Basketball Coach

Bio: born in Martinsville, Indiana, October 14, 1910; lives in Encino, California, USA; was married to his wife, Nell, for 53 years when she passed away in 1985; played college basketball player at Purdue and was an All American who won the Big Ten Conference Medal for outstanding merit and proficiency in scholarship and athletics; coached basketball in high school for eleven years; coached basketball in college for twenty-nine years (including twenty-seven years at UCLA); during his tenure at UCLA, his teams compiled 4 undefeated seasons, won 88 consecutive games, and won 10 national championships; first person to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach; named the greatest coach of the 20th century by ESPN

John Wooden and Leadership

What advice would you give to someone just starting in teaching and coaching today like you were years ago? One of the most important things is the ability to listen—listen to others. You can learn from your students like they learn from you. You must analyze all those who are under your supervision. You must remember to make all those under your supervision feel that you are working together toward a common goal. Never make anyone feel that they are working for you. You have to listen to others because that is where we learn, from listening to others. It doesn’t mean solely by our ears: We can do it by our eyes and in other ways. You must listen to others.

I would recommend aspiring leaders study your Pyramid of Success and your books. Are there any other books or experiences you recommend for aspiring leaders? I don’t want to pick out anything special. There are many things. I’ve enjoyed reading certain of the Oriental philosophers. I like to read the biographies of those who are considered to be outstanding people. I think I’ve gotten more from Lincoln and his books; I am a Lincoln fan. I have so many of his books. It is the little things that he says that help so much, such as, “The best thing that a father can do for his children is love their mother. The worst thing you can do for your children or people you love are the things they could and should do for themselves. Most anybody can stand adversity, but the tests versus character give them power. There is nothing stronger than gentleness.” And I could go on and on and mention many of Lincoln’s short statements that have so much depth.

Who is your most admired leader and why? My most admired leader is Mother Teresa because she lived in my lifetime. Many people might not look at her as a leader: I think she was. One of her statements carries it all, in which she says, “A life not lived for others is not a life.” If anyone truly lived a life for others, it is Mother Teresa. No one ever lived a life for others as much, in my opinion. I like to read about Helen Keller and how she overcame all the adversities she had. I like to read about Eleanor Roosevelt and Churchill and many of the other leaders in different areas. I’ve been asked a couple times if I would consider General Patton as a model or an idol. And I’ve said, “No, I don’t approve of his methods, but I sure want him on my side in a time of war.”

You have talked about the importance of being an effective listener. What about decisiveness in one’s actions? How important is that to leaders? I think I used this for a quote in one of [my] books: “The one who once most wisely said, ‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.’ Might well have added this to it, ‘Be sure you’re wrong, before you quit.’” I think that is true. Don’t make a hasty decision; there may be times in which you have to act quickly. But I don’t mean hastily. You must have some background for the decision that you make. Don’t give up on it too quickly, if you thought that it was sound when you made the decision. Good things take time to develop, and I think they should.

In your latest book, you posed the question, “How many of those under my leadership have achieved personal greatness?” My question to you is this: Is that the measure of how we should judge the effectiveness of a leader? Or, if not, what is the measure of how we should judge the effectiveness of a leader? Well, I think that "judgment of success," perhaps, can be done only accurately by the individuals themselves. I believe that the individuals themselves are the only people that really know whether they made the effort to do the best of which they are capable. It’s like character and reputation. Character is what you are, and you are the only person who really knows that. Reputation is what you are perceived to be by others, and perception of others is not always accurate.

Is there anything that people often “just don’t get” about leadership? I think so. I think the general feeling for success goes along with Mr. Webster’s definition of success which more or less defines success as the accumulation of material possessions or the attainment of power. I don’t think those necessarily indicate it, but that is what people judge and what people perceive to be success. There could be great leaders, in my opinion, that never achieve that type of recognition.

Please comment on a quotation you have used: Cervantes said the road is better than the inn; that is why I tried to use that as far as basketball is concerned. I tried to emphasize that practice is the important thing; to me, practice is the road and the game is the inn. There is more enjoyment in the practice, and that is what I enjoyed more than anything else. Practice is the teaching, and that is the only thing I’ve missed since retirement is the teaching. Do you think you were rare in that respect [in terms of your enjoyment of practices] because it seems like some coaches think in just the opposite way? Well, I wouldn’t speak for others, but there are some coaches that I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to observe a practice [of theirs] after my retirement—such as Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, when I was back in Durham for a McDonalds high school All American game. I didn’t talk to him about whether he enjoyed that more than the games, but I liked the way he [conducted practice]. I was very impressed with the way he conducted practice. I didn’t talk to him to ask whether he enjoyed practice more than the games or not, but I liked the way he did it. I feel that is one of the great reasons for his success. Another coach from our conference out here that invited me out to practice and flew me down is Lute Olson from Arizona, and I liked the way [Arizona] practiced. They had everything timed out properly; they didn’t waste time. It was well organized. Those appeal to me very much, and I think they are a partial reason for the success of those two coaches. Everybody knows that talent comes first, but you have to know what to do with it, and they know what to do with it. Are there any other quotes you like to use? Well, there are so many that I like. I use a lot of maxims. I like to use the one of “You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give.” That’s a quote that I’ve liked. Another one is “You can not live a perfect day without doing something for another without any thought of something in return.” And those go along with when I am trying to teach teamwork. I want to be considerate of the other person and always working for the team. Of course I want you to develop your individual abilities and talents, but then let’s put that to the use of the welfare of all. And there are many other [maxims] that bring that out.

When you talk about your Pyramid of Success--which I think is phenomenal--and your definition of success that goes with it, how common is it for people to achieve success as you define it. I don’t think it is as common as it should be. I don’t think it is actually too common. It all started by coining my own definition when I was teaching English in high school, finding many parents would make the teacher of the youngster feel that they had failed if [the student] didn’t receive an “A” or a “B.” And everybody couldn’t earn an “A” or a “B.” In the same way, successful coaches are determined primarily by their winning percentage; well, I don’t think that [winning percentage] is necessarily [the definition of success], so I wanted to come up with my own definition of success. My father had tried to teach me and my brothers when I was in grade school on the farm: You should never try to be better than somebody else. That’s something over which you have no control, and you shouldn’t get too involved or engrossed in the things over which you have no control, or it will have a detrimental affect on the things over which you have [control]. Learn from others, he’d say, because you never know a thing that you do not learn from someone else in one way or another. And then, most of all, you must never cease trying to be the best that you can be. He tried to get those across and later on in my teaching philosophy he also gave me a seven point creed when I graduated from grammar school, and one of them was “make each day your masterpiece.” I think my philosophy in teaching probably used that more than anything else. My players never heard me mention winning. I wanted winning to be a by-product of the preparation we were making to execute at our own particular level of competence, not worrying about the others. I think that those things came to me years later and helped me coin my own definition of success, along with a verse that I read. I was always getting verses: I’ve always loved poetry. And there was a little simple verse that said, “At God’s footstool to confess, a poor soul knelt and bowed his head. I’ve failed, he cried. The master said, 'Thou didst thy best, that is success.'” And that’s what I tried to get across at all times, whether it be to my teams, to my children, or anybody else. Make the effort to do the best of which you are capable: Nobody can do more than that. Others may be more talented, have more facilities, and all that, but nobody can do more than to make the effort to do the best of which they are capable under the conditions that exist for them.

In one of your books, you explained that character can not be taught, and I loved the story that you shared about how you chose not to offer a scholarship to a player that was very talented because you identified a character issue through the recruiting process. What do you do when there is someone on your team that is already present and really can’t be removed. Is there anything you can do to try to raise up that person? You can deny privileges. I think the greatest motivating thing we have is the denial of privileges, along with a pat on the back (although sometimes it has to be lower and harder). Denial of privileges is one of the most effective disciplines you have; if you are coming in new and someone has been the leader, but he is not doing the job, you must use great tact and gradually bring it around, so that they personally will understand what you are doing and the reasoning in back of it. Just don’t do it so abruptly. Don’t be like the story—I’m going to shorten this up a lot—where the captain called the lieutenant in and said, ‘Do you have a Jones in the company?’ He replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ The captain said, ‘Well, his mother died. Let him know very gently.’ So the lieutenant called the sergeant in and said, ‘Do you have a Jones? Jones lost his mother. Call the company together, and break it to Jones very gently that he lost his mother.’ So the sergeant called them all together and said, ‘All those with mothers, take one step forward.’ And then he said, ‘Not so fast, Jones. Not so fast.’ So use a little more tact than that. Discipline can not be effective unless tact is used. You can not antagonize and hope to get effective, productive results. I think physical punishment quite often antagonizes and usually does (like making them run stairs or do pushups), but I think denial of privileges is the best method.

Are leaders born or made, or is there a combination of the two? It has to be a combination. I don’t think you can make a leader out of anybody, but I think you can improve everybody. I think they can be improved by showing them the value of responsibility and bringing it about, but you’ll find out that not all can accept it very well. But you are going to find out that many things we learn by trial and error. So I think that you can improve them, but if you say that’s teaching it, I don’t know. I think you can direct them, but the earlier you get to them in their years, the more successful it will be.

Have you identified any changes in leaders or leadership style over the course of your lifetime? Yes. There are some that are considered to be great leaders but I think are more dictators than drivers...Lombardi was a great leader, and his style is entirely different. I think Lombardi...also was the driver, the dictator part. Talking about football, Tom Landry and Don Shula were very successful, but their styles were all different. You’ll see that in all sports, in business, and in all other things. I think the most effective leaders, though, in whatever method that they use, are the ones who have gotten their followers to “buy in” to their philosophy and work together toward reaching the common goal, whatever that might be.

What do organizations do to encourage or stifle leaders? Some of them stifle trying to take the credit for themselves. The leader gives credit to the followers and makes them feel a part of it. I think that’s most important that the leader give credit to the followers and make them feel that they have an important part. [It is important that leaders] make followers feel that they work with them and not for them. I think in many cases that isn’t done. I think the effective leader is going to get far more out of his followers when he makes them feel important. He must give credit and not blame. He makes the final decisions, so if it doesn’t go well, he’s to blame.

Who are other leaders we should look into featuring that it would benefit aspiring leaders to learn about? You should read about and study all you can about those who recognize others such as Covey and some of the things he has written about leadership. A number of the others [should be featured and studied]. I think one should study Billy Graham: He is a person today that I have such respect and admiration for. I think you’ll find that you get more from reading the biographies of very influential people in history. There are so many others, too…Not everybody can take some crayons, some paint, and a piece of paper and give you a beautiful picture. Some can. Most can’t, but some can. Why is it that some can do it? With the same amount of knowledge, some can express themselves much better than others. Trying to analyze the “why” of it is fun. I liked to study the background of all my players. I studied the transcripts, and I wanted to know whether they came from a broken home, or whether they had brothers and sisters, whether they were an only child, or what the interests of their parents were. I could learn so much about the individual by studying the environment that he had been around before I would have him come to UCLA. I think we can do that in other ways, too.

What else would it be valuable to include in this feature about you and leadership? Listening should be emphasized. Listening. Listening. I think parenting is the most important profession in the world, and I think in many cases parents do not listen enough to the youngsters, and the youngsters do not listen to the parents. If you expect people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. I think [listening] is something that perhaps has been overlooked in many things. A lot of people hear, but they don’t listen. So many people are trying to think of what they are going to say next, instead of listening to what the individual speaking [is saying]. I don’t think listening is stressed enough, and I think that it is so extremely important, not just for leaders but for everyone.

John Wooden's Thoughts and Comments

What is your favorite book and why? The best book of all is the Bible: you and I both know that. There you can find things that can help you in any particular situation if you’ll just look for it. There are different things about different authors that I like, and I would not single out any other single one. I enjoy poetry, and I find many things that are helpful in poetry. A couple of verses stand out to me from Sir Thomas Graves', “ Elegy Written in a Churchyard.” One is “Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: / Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” And I can use that in various times with different players and people under my supervision for different reasons. And then in the same poem, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, / And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave, / Awaits alike th' inevitable hour: / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” That is usable with someone that is getting too full of themselves. There are many poems like that that I have used an awful lot in my teaching.

When you consider your legacy, what are the most important things that come to mind? The fact that most all of the players that I had under my supervision graduated, got their degrees, and have done reasonably well in whatever profession they have chosen. There have been many attorneys, doctors, dentists, eight ministers, businessmen, teachers, and a couple actors. Whatever profession [they have chosen], they have done well or at least reasonably well. And that gives me more satisfaction than anything else.

What are the things that keep you strong in your faith and continue to draw you closer to God? The true belief that things will work out as they should--which doesn’t mean the way we would want them to necessarily--but [the way] they will, providing we do what we are capable of doing to help them become reality. I think there is too much thought on just wanting things to come out a certain way, and you don’t do everything you are capable of doing to help that become a reality. I think you can find that stated in many different ways by many different people in the Bible.

I loved the story [in one of your books] of you as a youth testing your coach when you told him you didn’t bring your jersey with you to school: The story illustrated your human side. What experiences in your life have been vital to your development? I think that is definitely one where I was probably getting too big for myself, and that brought me down. He (my coach) said that I was tired and should sit on the bench, and we lost the game. I’m sure he felt, and I felt we could have won if I’d have played. But it taught me quite a lesson, and I don’t think I tried to pull anything like that again. Being upset with him was only temporary. As time goes by I appreciated more and more what he had done. Mr. Lambert, my college coach, had as high of principles as anybody I have ever known, in so many ways. He was a tremendous competitor during the course of the game, but when the game was over, it was over. That’s the way he took it. But boy, while the game was going on, he was very, very competitive, and he was tremendous on preparation for getting ready. I think the basic philosophy for my pyramid comes from Mr. Lambert: to get your teams in the best possible physical condition, explain how that can be done, what you have to do for drills in practice and what they must do between practices. Then he believed so much in quickness. I, myself, believe that the most valuable asset in almost any sport—whether it be football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, tennis, whatever it might be—is quickness under control, and Lambert was certainly searching for that all the time. He might give up a little bit of size to get more quickness. You have to have so much size of course. But where some would give up a little quickness to get more size, he would give up some size to get more quickness. The third thing was team spirit. He required that the team came first and brought that out in many ways. He wanted every person to feel a part of the team: Everyone was needed, everybody had a role, and some of the roles were playing far more than others. Of those who were playing, [some] had different roles that were important for the success of the group as a whole. I think in various ways you would find that out. You don’t get it by his just telling you that: by his actions and things that he did, you got that. And eventually, many years later, when I came up with my pyramid, those three things (conditioning, skill, team spirit) became the heart of the pyramid.

What is your dream? I think from my father’s teachings my dream wasn’t to win national championships. [Perhaps that was more of a focus] in my early years, but as time went by, all I was hoping to do was do things to the best of my ability and not worry about [others]. [I was] just trying to be the best. I had the philosophy that I wanted those under my supervision to do well, and I got great satisfaction out of seeing those that have been under my supervision doing well in things not necessarily pertaining to basketball. You’d like to feel that—whether they be a doctor, an attorney, or whatever they are doing, you had a little part in their successes. And if they were failures, you’d wonder what you could have done to help prevent that. As time went by, I saw that more clearly than I did in the beginning. What dream do you have now? I have been trying since my retirement to establish the Nell and John Wooden Great-Grandchildren Academic Trust to ensure all of my thirteen great-grandchildren at the present time will have the funds to receive their college education. I started that a few years ago, and that is what I am trying to establish.

What is a thing you wish you would have done more of or done differently in your lifetime? Do more things for my wife; for example, she did more things for me. She’d go to something with me when she may have preferred to go to an opera or a recital. She liked to dance, and I didn’t. I never took the time, so that we could do that together. Those are some of the regrets that I have. And then some of the decisions that I made that didn’t turn out well for individuals, I regret that I made the decision. Although when I made the decision, I thought it was right and that is what you should do. I try to teach that. When you make a decision, make sure that you think it is right, and then it is right. I don’t care how it turns out. You might wish that it would turn out differently. For example, [the issue of] playing certain players in basketball. Reporters, or the media, or alumni might feel that you should play this fella more. It would be wrong if [you let others determine what is right] unless you think that is what should be done. You’re in a position to know more about it than anybody else because you see them everyday, so you make a decision on certain things, and even if it doesn’t turn out right, that doesn’t mean that you were wrong. So I think there were many things that I would regret the way they turned out, but I don’t regret the fact that I did what I should do. And there are some cases—and I won’t be specific on them—when I did give in to maybe outside pressure and did some things I shouldn’t have done and that was wrong regardless of the way it turned out.

What have been the turning points in your life? When I enlisted in the service in WWII, I received orders to board the USS Franklin in the South Pacific. I became very sick on my way, and they found out that I had a ruptured appendix and canceled my orders. The person that replaced me was killed by a kamikaze. Undoubtedly, I would have been in the direct place that he was in when it happened. I used to go to a basketball camp at Blues Creek, North Carolina, at Campbell College every year, and they liked me to come in on Saturday and speak to the campers on Sunday. I couldn’t make it on Saturday—something came up at UCLA—and I took exactly the same flight on Sunday. They transferred my ticket from Saturday to Sunday on the same flight. It was out of Atlanta to Raleigh, North Carolina. The plane that I originally had the ticket for on Saturday crashed and everyone aboard was killed, and I flew right over it the next day. Some of those things make you think, but I do not think they are necessarily turning points.

What is your greatest joy in life today? My children and my great grandchildren. I have been very blessed. Within a couple hours of me or less, all of my thirteen great grandchildren live, and I see them regularly. I’ve been so blessed that they all stay where I get to do that. Many times during the course of a month I have breakfast with so many of my ex-players who also are part of my extended family. I go to the same place every morning, and Mike Warren, Randy Hill, Keith Erickson, or many others will call and want to come to breakfast. That gives me great joy.

Who are the people that it has been a highlight for you to meet throughout your lifetime? I had the pleasure of meeting a number of Presidents, and that has been great. When I received the Medal of Freedom two years ago, even more [exciting] than [meeting] the President—who was very gracious—was meeting his lovely wife Laura who I’d had respect for, knowing a little of her background. [I knew] that she was a teacher and a librarian and what a gracious person she was. I am happy that I had the opportunity to do that. I had an opportunity to work with the Habitat for Humanity building out here in Los Angeles with President Carter and his lovely wife a few years ago. I had lunch with and got to sit by her and visit with him. Those are things that give me pleasure. But also I have pleasure with just meeting with people that aren’t well known. There are so many wonderful people that nobody knows anything about. You stumble on them and find out....It’s not necessarily just the people that are in the high-profile positions that have been wonderful.

For More About John Wooden