John Wooden’s Leadership Lessons That Work On and Off the Court From HR

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DeM Banter:  Have received several comments, praises and quotes from those that are great admirers of Coach Wooden and in light of HR’s free offer below… had to post! 

Editor’s note: In the honor and memory of acclaimed NCAA basketball coach John Wooden, we are rerunning our article from fall 2009 on his co-authored book “Coach Wooden’s Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence.” Wooden’s leadership advice in the book provided insight for HR executives and other leaders in any organization.


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At the start of each basketball season at UCLA, Coach John Wooden used to personally demonstrate for his players “how to correctly put on sweat socks to avoid folds, wrinkles, or creases that cause blisters,” he recently told BLR. Such attention to detail, he says, is critical for success on and off the court.

What do sweat socks and blisters have to do with success? “A blister can cause distraction; a distraction can cause a turnover; a turnover in the last seconds of a game can cause you to be outscored,” he says.

“What if that game is for a national championship? I ask executives, ‘What is your version of putting on socks correctly?’ And that’s just the start of looking for relevant details.”

Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 years and, among other accomplishments, has been named America’s “Greatest Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN.

His most recent accomplishment is co-authoring a book, Coach Wooden’s Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence (McGraw-Hill, 2009), with Steven Jamison. Wooden’s leadership advice provides insight for HR executives and other leaders in any organization.

Demonstrate Your Values

Wooden says leaders need to demonstrate the values they expect others to have.

As a leader, you “can talk about ‘values’ until you’re blue in the face, but whatever you say pales in comparison to the power of what you do—your own example.

“… It’s important to ‘demonstrate’ your values because it gives those under your supervision an important message: ‘This is how we do things here; this is what I expect from you,’” he explains. “How a leader behaves is generally how your organization behaves. Work ethic? Enthusiasm? Courage under fire? Fairness? Integrity? Quality of execution? Even being on time for meetings? The leader sets the standard with his or her own example.”

Let the Team Know You Care

“A great organization in business or basketball is an extended family. At least that’s how it is for me. Strong bonds exist and positive relationships are developed. Not always, but ideally,” he says.

The coach, manager, CEO, or other person in charge “must find appropriate ways to show individuals under his or her supervision” that he or she cares about those individuals.

“Sincere care and consideration for an employee—or player—must be expressed. Otherwise, how will they ever know they’re not considered just a cog in the wheel, expendable?

“People will work harder and better if they know they are valued as a person, part of an extended family, a member of an organization that cares about them.

“… For example, in the minutes before our practice would begin, I’d seek out players and talk to them about something in their lives beyond basketball. ‘How’s Mom? Is she feeling better?’; ‘Are you doing OK in that history class?’

“You can’t fake your interest, but when you have genuine interest you must look for ways to show it that are appropriate … There are many little ways you can show that you care.”

Good Leaders Teach

When asked what makes a leader a good teacher, Wooden points to the “Four Laws of Learning,” which are the same as the “Four Laws of Teaching” (i.e., Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation, and Repetition).

“Assuming you know what your subject matter is, it’s also good to remember a few other fundamentals,” he says.

“Offer information in bite-size pieces; be patient; recognize the different levels of learning ability within your group.

“And, as important as anything, remember that a teacher—the leader—must never stop learning. When you’re through learning, you’re through. I am still learning, and I’m almost a hundred years old. You must never stop learning.”

How to Earn Respect, Trust

“If you give respect, you’ll get respect. The same goes for loyalty, and trust and all the other virtues that I believe great leaders have to offer,” Wooden says.

“I also believe the leader, the person in charge, is usually the one who must initiate the process. Don’t wait for an employee to respect you before you’ll respect him or her. Hire good people, respect and trust them.

“I believe the following: ‘It is better to trust and be disappointed occasionally than to mistrust and be miserable all the time.’ I’ve been disappointed a few times along the way, but not enough to change my thinking on that subject.

“Trust is “one of the most powerful leadership tools available to a leader,” Wooden says. Why is it so important?

“There are challenges for a leader when things are going great, but the challenges are much greater when things are going bad—whether it’s a losing streak, a competitor who seems to be taking over the market, or anything else.

“And bad times are a part of what leadership must deal with. That’s when you need the trust of those under your supervision. They have to believe in you.

“Without trust they may cut and run; with trust they will follow you into uncharted waters. They must believe in you… Good values are a fundamental element in creating trust.”

Promote ‘Greatness’

“I define greatness as making the effort to do your job for our team to the absolute maximum of your ability,” Wooden says. “You achieve greatness, in my view, when you do that. This is true whether you happen to be Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the sixth player on the bench, the equipment manager, or the head coach.

“Thus, greatness is available to everyone on our team, not just the super star or the high scorer in a particular game.”

As a basketball coach, “I made a very special effort to let the so-called lesser role players on a team know that I valued them and that they were pivotal in our achieving success.

“At the beginning of a press conference following a game, for example, I would intentionally mention a player or two who I knew the reporters wouldn’t ask about, just so that player got some deserved attention.

“In practice, I would acknowledge them more often than the ‘star.’ (I would generally give the ‘star’ my praise privately.)

“In my perspective, some players might be harder to replace—Bill or Kareem, for example—but that didn’t make them greater than their teammates.”

Common Leadership Mistake


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