Posts Tagged ‘john wooden’

I started (3/09/09) working at my new job (at my old company, the one I worked at prior to my most recent one, which was my first job out of college).  I met with the CEO on my first day back, and he passed along the book "Wooden on Leadership".  My first question was "Who’s John Wooden?"  But a simple Wikipedia search gave me the answer. In a nutshell, he was a coach at UCLA from 1948 to 1975 and won 12 national championships, more than any other coach.

Since I recently finished reading and reviewing my previous book, 48 Days to the Work you Love by Dan Miller, I figured it was a good time to start reading a new one.


Wooden didn’t care much about winning, he was more happy to see people reach their full potential than win a championship.  He didn’t like the attention that winning a lot of games came with; always having to answer to reporters, conduct interviews, etc.  If he had a magic lamp he would wish for coaches he had a good relationship with  to win just one national championship, and for coaches he did not have warm feelings for he would wish for them to win many championships.  He enjoyed practices more than the games themselves because it was during practices that he could teach others how to achieve greatness by helping the team to succeed.


Prior to the introduction is a picture of a pyramid.  I couldn’t find a good example as displayed in the book, with the definitions, but a decent example of the pyramid can be found here.  More will be explained about the pyramid in later chapters, but feel free to reference the picture.

One quote from the book I really enjoyed was: "I believe leadership itself is largely learned.  Certainly not everyone can lead, nor is every leader destined for glory, but most of us have a potential far beyond what we think possible."  Basically, it means if we work hard enough, we have the potential to succeed.  He carried with him advice his father told him when he was younger:  " Don’t worry about whether you’re better than somebody else, but never cease trying to be the best you can become.  You have control over that; the other you don’t."

Winning is the by-product of success.  He never fixated on winning during his time at UCLA, rather he focused on making sure his players gave everything they had.  If they did that the score took care of itself.  Wooden emphasized how much the 1959-60 season was his favorite.  They went into the last game of the season with a record of 13-12.    Broadcasters thought it would be a miracle if they finished above .500.  They weren’t expected to be a decent team.  Yet they won that last game, and finished 14-12.  The team wasn’t the most talented, but they gave the best they had.

Don’t Hastily Replace the Old Fashioned with the New Fangled – "There is no progress without change, but not all change is progress."  This sounds similar to the talks about change in the 48 Days book I previously mentioned.  Here, the author mentions that if it’s not broken, don’t change it.  There are methods he used with players early on that didn’t need tweaking since they worked.

Write Down the Tasks, Initiatives, and Actions that Each Member of  Your Team Needs to Do to Perform at His or Her Peak Level – We need to be specific for each of our direct reports.  We can’t afford to be too general, and overemphasize the results.  We can’t assume they will understand how to "increase sales by 15%."  Rather we should give them concrete goals, such as "make 5 more calls per week."  Luckily for me, before I even read this chapter, I did just that with one of my employees.  I noticed their output numbers were slightly lower than those of his peers.  I explained to them the results on Tuesday, and asked him if he could increase his numbers by Friday.  By Wednesday afternoon he had already doubled his numbers from what he had done all day on Tuesday.

Part 1:  The Foundation for Leadership

Chapter 1: The Pyramid of Success

Wooden created a pyramid of success that has multiple layers.  Chapter one describes the bottom tier of the pyramid.  The author spent a lot of time deciding what would go into the pyramid.  After a few years he settled on what will be mentioned in the upcoming chapters.  Much like the Great Pyramid in Egypt, Wooden’s pyramid was built over time.

Wooden sees the two cornerstones of the pyramid as being most important.  They are the foundation that the pyramid is built upon.

Industriousness – "There is no substitute for work."
Enthusiasm – "You must truly enjoy what you are doing."

This goes back to the old saying, "Love what you do, and you never have to work a day in your life."

Within the two cornerstones are the following:

Friendship – "Requires a joint effort."
Loyalty – "To yourself and to all those depending on you."
Cooperation – "Be interested in finding the best way, not in having your own way."

Loyalty was at the center of the bottom tier, just as it should be in all things.  It is not possible to be a great leader if you do not display loyalty to your team and organization.  Outside of marriage, loyalty to your team is probably the strongest connection you will have in life.

I really enjoyed the quote under cooperation of the three center items in the bottom tier.  Your initial idea may not be the best idea, so make sure you get feedback and input from your peers.  A leader has to be committed to what’s right rather than who’s right.  However, the leader must have the final say after a decision is made, and it must be accepted by the team.

Chapter 2:  The Pyramid’s Second Tier

The first item on the pyramid’s second tier is:

Self-Control.  "Keep emotions under control."  Self-Control is a necessary quality of a leader, because if he cannot control himself, he cannot control his team.  Choices we make in our personal lives affect our professional lives.  Self-Control also creates consistency because the leader who has self-control can keep the team in line.

Other items on this second tier:

Alertness – "Be observant and eager to learn and improve."
Initiative – "Learn from failure."  The team that makes the most mistakes usually wins.  Action taken to correct mistakes usually leads to better quality, because the team that learns from their mistakes assesses the situation more carefully next time.
Intentness – "Be determined and persistent."

Chapter 3:  The Heart of the Pyramid

The tiers on this pyramid appear to be more physical in nature, yet are related to the non-physical.  They are:

Condition – "Moral, mental, physical.  Moderation must be practiced."  Mental and moral fitness is just as important as physical fitness.  There must be a balance.  The leader must set an example.  He goes onto mention that workaholics lack balance.  He sees this as a weakness that can cause problems sooner or later.  The first problem is likely to be inconsistency in performance.  Sounds like he’s in agreement with my thoughts on the subject.
Skill – "Knowledge and ability to execute fundamentals."
Team Spirit – "An eager to sacrifice personal interest for the welfare of all."  The star of the team is the team.  Teams win games, individuals do not.  What helps the organization ultimately helps them.
Poise – "Be yourself."  Stick to your beliefs regardless of how bad the situation may be.
Confidence – "Be prepared and keep perspective."

And finally, at the top of the pyramid:

Competitive Greatness – "Be at your best when your best is needed."

Part 2: Lessons in Leadership

Chapter 4:  Good Values Attract Good People

Wooden would interview college applicants before they were offered scholarships at UCLA.  One applicant came with his mother, and was very rude to her when she asked a question during the interview.  He never made an offer to that student because his he didn’t have good values.  Values lead to integrity.  A leader has to make a person believe that their tasks are critical to the success of the company.  You want a team of people who have character.  You don’t want a team of characters who happen to be people.  It’s tough to coach character, and it’s difficult to teach character to adults.  Rather, we need to have the courage to make character count among the qualities we seek in others.

Beware Those Who’ll Do Whatever It Takes to Win A good set of values is part of successful leadership.  Be wary of those who will do anything to win.  It is an attitude of a flawed competitor.

Chapter 5:  Use the Most Powerful Four-Letter Word

You don’t have to treat everyone alike or like everyone the same.  – It’s okay to have favorites within the organization, but never replace fairness with favoritism.  Give each individual the treatment he or she earns and deserves.

Know what time it is. – There are times to be flexible and times to be firm.  Know the difference between rules that can be waived occasionally and those that go to the core of your philosophy.

Chapter 6:  Call Yourself a Teacher

Get a good hat rack.  A good leader will have to play many different roles including teacher, demonstrator, counselor, role model, psychologist, motivator, timekeeper, quality control expert, talent judge, referee,organizer, and more.  A good leader knows when to delegate, but an effective leader assumes many roles and wears many hats.  A good demonstration beats a great description.  A leader has to lead by example.  Be what you want your team to become.

Chapter 7:  Emotion Is Your Enemy

One must control their emotions.  It is okay to show intensity, but keep emotions under control.  A leader cannot be ruled by emotions.  His team cannot be ruled by emotions.  One rule Wooden emphasized was that when a player scored a basket, they were supposed to give a ‘nod’ to a player that helped on the play.  Nothing annoys me more than watching a football game with a team could down by 21 points, and a player on the losing team sacks the QB and then starts showboating and making a scene.  Someone should tell this player his team is down by 21 points, and it is not the time to celebrate.

Chapter 8:  It Takes 10 Hands to Score a Basket

To describe this chapter in one sentence, "The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts."  Teamwork, with each player performing his role, creates success.  An analogy used in the chapter says that although the driver of a race car team gets all the glory, he can’t do it without his team performing their "lesser" duties behind the scenes.  In praising employees, Wooden recommends to praise the superstars in private, but praise those with lesser roles in public.  We should also go out of our way to praise those quiet performers who make things happen.

You can’t let superstars focus on individual statistics.  This mirrors Joe Torre’s thoughts in the book, "The Yankee Years".  Alex Rodriguez was always focused on his individual stats, and Torre wanted him to concentrate more on helping out the team.

Chapter 9:  Little Things Make Big Things Happen

This chapter focuses on paying attention to detail.  Wooden isn’t afraid to admit he doesn’t get things right the first time, and there are many parts throughout the book that touch upon this.  If something isn’t working, he will tweak it a bit.  His attention to detail is almost artistic.  He has drills that teach players how to put socks on properly to avoid blisters, the right way to tie your shoes, and the right way to make free throws.  At the same time, he’s willing to take exceptions to people who might do something a certain way if it produces results.

Chapter 10:  Make Each Day Your Masterpiece

Preparation is the key to success.  Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.  One section which I really like is titled "You Can’t Give 110%".  Instead, give all you have, which is 100%.  "Give 100% today, because you can’t make up for it by giving 110% tomorrow.  You don’t have 110%, you only have 100%, and that’s what I want from you right now."

One of the few rules Wooden never altered in all his days of coaching was the requirement to be on time.  We can all work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  How effectively are we using the time we are given?

This chapter really focuses on time management, and being effective.  It is probably my favorite chapter in the whole book. If you read nothing else, read this chapter.

Chapter 11:  The Carrot is Mightier Than a Stick

This chapter compares and contrasts offering rewards for potential good behavior against telling people what the consequences are for bad behavior.  While I appreciate Chapter 10 the most, I probably learned the most from this chapter.  A leader must get his team to perform at their peak level in ways that benefit the team.  Do you do that by dangling a carrot in front of them or by beating them with a stick until they do it?  Wooden prefers dangling a carrot.  Its denial creates desire, yet you get what you want, thereby transforming the carrot into a stick.

As described earlier, Wooden sometimes learns from mistakes he’s made in the past and changes his stance moving forward.  He provides an example in this chapter.  He used to have a zero-tolerance policy on smoking.  He immediately dismissed a student after he caught him smoking.  Because of this, the student lost his scholarship which would have helped him through college.  Wooden changed from having a lot of rules and fewer suggestions to having a few rules and lots of suggestions.  He recommends favoring firm suggestions over strict rules.  Doing this allows you to not get locked into a long list of rigid rules.

He finishes the chapter speaking of how and when to criticize players.  Only the leader should criticize, and you shouldn’t allow teammates to criticize each other.  Additionally, he recommends offering bits of praise when you criticize, and do it in such a way to soften the blow while delivering your message.

Chapter 12:  Make Greatness Attainable By All

Wooden explains in this chapter to try and find what makes someone great and to play to their strengths.  Once you find what a person is good for, make them feel good about their role, and make them want to do it well.  In an example he provides in the book, there were times when he had to do this for players in supporting roles.  For example, one player was soley used in practices.  This player would backup the team’s starting center, and this allowed the starter to enhance his skills.  Wooden went on to say how he had to explain the one players role and how much it meant for the good of the team.  It is our responsibility as a leader to to educate those on our team of the importance of their role.

We should encourage ambition in talented individuals, but they must learn to walk before they run, and before they learn how to walk they must learn how to crawl.  The ambitious individual must master their assigned roles before they can advance into new ones.

Chapter 13:  Seek Significant Change

I liked the opening quote in this chapter.  "Be uncomfortable being comfortable, discontent being content." We can’t get too comfortable.  We have to innovate to improve.  "The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast." Throughout the book, Wooden is never afraid to try new ideas.  He realizes where things he has tried could be improved.  He recommends surrounding ourselves with people strong enough to change our minds.  I welcome this.  I am quick to admit my ideas may not be the best, but a group of ideas from a team has the potential to generate something really good.  Improvement is always possible, and we must stop saying "No" and start asking "How?" in order to find it.

Chapter 14:  Don’t Look at the Scoreboard

Again the opening quote is something I agree with, "Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out." I find that people who think like this in a group can create positive results.  You have to play with the cards you are dealt, so make the most of it.

Wooden shows his project management skills (although he may not have realized it) by starting with the end in mind.  His goal is to win the conference championship.  So he analyzes what he needs to do to get there.  And when he gets to the beginning, he concludes that it starts (sounds funny doesn’t it?) with taking full advantage of every practice.

Chapter 15:  Adversity Is Your Asset

Here Wooden actually says what I just described above, and that is to play the hand you’re dealt.  He tells how he got started at UCLA.  Initially he wanted to coach for Minnesota.  He had interviewed with both Minnesota and UCLA.  He made the decision to go to Minnesota in his mind, but waited for the offer.  Minnesota told them the offer would be made at a specific date and time.  Wooden gave UCLA a phone call and told them in all likelihood he would be turning down their offer.  When the phone call never came, he told UCLA he would accept their offer.  It turns out that the telephone lines were down in Minnesota which is why he missed the call.  By then, it was too late.  He didn’t go back on his word.

This chapter closely relates to Chapter 14.  We have to make the most of a situation using the assets we have available.  We cannot control what happens, but we can control how we react to what happens.  You cannot let up or quit when things go wrong, because that sends the wrong message to the team.  This reminds me of a saying a lot of my friends have, "Everything happens for a reason…"  I disagree.  I think it is possible to "Find reason in why things happen."  By finding a reason, we can learn from it.  "Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out."

Part 3:  Lessons From My Notebook

The last part of the book contains excerpts from notebooks that Wooden used throughout his career as a teacher and coach.  There is a ton of good information in this section, but I’ll just comment on the pieces I liked the most.

Normal Expectations

Wooden created a list of "Normal Expectations".  Here are some items from his list that really stood out to me:

1.  Be a gentleman at all times.  (I’d change this to act professionally at all times, since this can be better applied to both sexes.)
2.  Be a team player always.  (Working independently is fine, but always keep the team goals in mind.  Is what you are doing for the good of the team?)
3.  Be on time whenever time is involved.
5.  Be enthusiastic, industrious, dependable, loyal, and cooperative.
6.  Be in the best possible condition – physically, mentally, and morally.
7.  Earn the right to be proud and confident.
8.  Keep emotions under control without losing fight or aggressiveness.
9.  Work constantly to improve without becoming satisfied.
10.  Acquire peace of mind by becoming the best that you are capable of becoming.


1.  Never criticize, nag, or razz a teammate.
2.  Never miss or be late for any class or appointment.
3.  Never be selfish, jealous, envious, or egotistical.
4.  Never expect favors.
5.  Never waste time.
6.  Never alibi or make excuse.
7.   Never require repeated criticism for the same mistake.
8.  Never lose faith or patience.
9.  NEver grandstand, loaf, sulk, or boast.
10.  Never have reason to be sorry afterwards.

I really like this list.  I plan to use it.

Your Replacement

In 1972 Wooden was having heart problems and had to go to the hospital.  He appointed two of his assistant coaches leadership responsibilities in his absence.  In the book is a printout of the practice schedule for one of the days Wooden was gone.  Wooden was very impressed with how well it was put together.  The content and substance was very similar to his own.  He goes on to say, "A leader truly dedicated to the team’s welfare doesn’t make himself irreplaceable."  I think the same could be said for members of the team.  They should work hard to make sure other members can fill in for them when they are not available.

Final Thoughts

Overall I thought this was a good read.  You can see throughout the book that Wooden always worked on improving his ideas.  If something could be enhanced, he looked into it.  He learned from his mistakes.  He was very regimented and organized.  I believe it worked for him, and it could work for any of us.  I would definitely recommend it to someone looking to motivate them self, or anyone looking for ways to improve their management skills.

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