John Wooden on Leadership

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  • Topic: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Basketball, John Wooden
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Book Review: “Wooden on Leadership”

John Wooden is a legendary basketball coach, best known for his UCLA dynasty, which won an unprecedented and unthinkable 10 national championships in 12 years. That stretch included an 88-game win streak and four perfect seasons. But Wooden’s proudest accomplishments are not those of which are collected in the annals of sports history. And they have little to do with winning or losing.

In his book “Wooden on Leadership,” the coach reveals that he never focused on his teams’ records or gauged success or failure on wins versus losses. Rather, he defined success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” Wooden told his players that there would always be someone who is faster, stronger or jumps higher, so they should focus their collective energy and attention toward something they could control: maximizing their potential. This lesson, along with other teachings revealed in the book, are applicable to all of us, not just jocks.

While many of Wooden’s theories and techniques were refined through the years via trial and error, critical thinking and constant analysis, many of his philosophies are based on messages passed down by his father, Joshua Wooden, who is referenced quite a few times in the book. Wooden seemed most proud of his dad’s ability to endure terrible setbacks, from the loss of daughters to the family’s beloved farm, and remain optimistic and blame-free throughout. This is a trait I personally appreciate most in people. In fact, Wooden’s way of articulating it, “Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turns out,” is very similar to my favorite saying: “The best things happen to those who make the best of the things that happen to them.”

Wooden tackles a variety of character traits and values in the book that he sees as essential to the pursuit of perfection as an individual as well as a team. Pursuit is the key word. Wooden uses personal stories and his personal notes, lists and coaching diagrams to accentuate his points and sums up each chapter with action steps for implementing key concepts and leadership tenets. He starts the book by exploring the famous Pyramid of Success, 15 fundamental qualities that apply to individuals, especially leaders, on sports teams as well as any organization, network, office, or department in the business world. The pyramid, developed during the early years of Wooden’s coaching career, was posted prominently on the walls of his office and was handed out to each player at the beginning of every season. It is also included in the book.

The cornerstones of the pyramid, the most important because of their weight-bearing functions, are enthusiasm and industriousness. Enthusiasm is pretty simple: You must truly enjoy what you are doing day in and day out. Industriousness is a word that Wooden chose to describe hard work. Most people, he said, and I agree, misunderstand or have no accurate reference point for hard work. A job that requires you to sit in meetings or in front of a computer eight hours a day might be mentally exhausting or difficult to stomach, but it is not necessarily hard work. Wooden grew up on a farm, so he knows a thing or two about hard, physical labor. But what he is speaking to regarding industriousness is really throwing yourself into a challenge and going beyond what’s merely required to complete the task or earn a paycheck. With that kind of hard work, worthwhile things will come, Wooden said. The remaining blocks of the critical foundation of Wooden’s pyramid include friendship, loyalty and cooperation. He understood that some might question the logic behind a leader being friends with subordinates so he made sure to distinguish that friend in this context was a relationship that involves mutual respect and camaraderie in order to build a tight bond in the team structure. The second...
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