Things I Learned from John Wooden

Written By Randy Hall  |  Coaching 


I recently finished reading the book They Call Me Coach by John Wooden. It had been on my list for some time and while I have read several interviews and articles with Wooden as the centerpiece, I had never read his book. When he passed away recently at the age of 99, I renewed my commitment to learn more about him and how he was able to accomplish an amazing track record of success.

It’s Wooden’s track record that was so intriguing to me in the first place. This man won 10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12 year span. Think about the challenge of keeping your business in an elite position for a decade. Now think about doing it when you have to turn over 100% of your team every 4 years as Wooden did as a college coach.

John Wooden never had a losing season. Will you?

What this told me was that Wooden hadn’t just mastered one aspect of coaching, he had become an expert at the entire process and could replicate it with different players, different personalities and different skillsets. I think about how many leaders I work with who are very effective at getting the best out of one kind of employee but struggle mightily with others. Most of us are effective at communication and coaching when people think like we do. It’s those “other” people that we struggle with. Those stubborn ones who insist on thinking differently in spite of the clear wisdom and blinding brilliance of our words.

I learned a lot as I read the story of John Wooden’s career about why he was so successful. As it relates to how business leaders can work differently to achieve their own success, I found that two things stood out for me.

He focused on capability, not winning.

Wooden understood at a visceral level that success was an outcome of capability. He focused on helping each of his players reach their own potential rather than on winning basketball games. He often referenced the fact that he never prepared to beat another team, he simply prepared the team to play their best, no matter the opponent.

How many times in business do we allow ourselves to become consumed with the quarterly number at the expense of the people who will help achieve it, or not? I think a significant contributor to our economic situation is businesses focusing on their outputs and balance sheets rather than their talent, capability and potential.

He changed his approach based on the situation and the talent.

Wooden never changed his principles, but he adapted his coaching and playing style to what the team needed. Wooden had become a master of playing a fast tempo style of basketball and winning with it. Then a seven footer named Lewis Alcindor came to town. (Alcindor later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Wooden had to completely change his playing style to take advantage of Alcindor’s awesome presence under the basket. He changed it dramatically, and won three championships coaching a style of basketball he had never coached before.

Especially in this business climate, things are changing fast. One of the most successful things a leader can do is be willing to change his or her perspective. Don’t shift principles; never compromise those. But be willing to constantly adjust your perspective to address new challenges and capture new opportunities.

It’s easy for us to come to a place where our efforts are about getting more out of the business and the people rather than putting more into it. It’s also easy to keep driving forward rather than stopping and considering how we need to adjust to become the right leader and coach for this day, this time and this team. Wooden mastered those things and, for him, it created a legacy of winning. It also created 168 UCLA basketball lettermen whose lives were better and more fulfilling because they had the opportunity to learn from a Coach named John Wooden.

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