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Leadership Lessons from Coach Wooden

One of the great lessons of life can be illustrated through the words of former UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden: “Play to win with every fiber of your body but never allow your success as a team to be measured or defined by the scoreboard.”

Coach Wooden

John Wooden understood in the game of basketball, the learning process of working together as a team was more important than if the team won or lost against their opponent. Compare this to the workforce and society today, where results tend to define whether you are a winner or a loser. The game of basketball may seem insignificant in comparison to our daily lives, but perhaps Wooden’s unconventional philosophy holds true off the court, as well as in college basketball. The great results he produced with his teams are proof the scoreboard will take care of itself when the player strives for excellence in his role as part of the team. It is the process instead of the results that define who we are.

To further substantiate the relevance of Wooden’s philosophy, analyze the history of civilizations or organizations that were once great but then fell because of an internal weakness. The Roman Empire is a classic example; greatness was initially achieved by an adherence to a set of values, norms, and principles commonly held by all the members of society. However, decline began when the Romans discarded these fundamentals that made the society great, allowing the empire to rot and eventually collapse. When ultimate power, success, or the “final score” start to mean everything, it becomes a consuming force that will only lead you down a dark path.

The process of building a high performing team always begins with leadership.

Great leaders know the direction they desire to travel and can influence the heads, hands, and hearts of others to follow their dream. Leaders can envision not only the possibilities of the team, but the unique potential capabilities of each individual. However, for a leader to be a model for their players, it is crucial for them to play dual roles of both a visionary and servant/parachute packer.

After leadership comes the selection of the right players for the team.

Seldom do the best players make the best team. It is the right players, in the right roles, going to the right destination that will produce the desired results. The right players always have a combination of character, attitude, and competence to do their job, placing the goals and objectives of the team above themselves. The quote by Rudyard Kipling conveys this very point: “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

Lastly, it is critical to foster an environment and culture where the attitude of “if you fail, I fail” is upheld as the standard.

The commitment of everyone on the team to never let another teammate down is what Wooden believed will ultimately and positively impact the end results. Now, what is the process that creates this kind of team attitude?

We believe seven time-tested and common-sense principles exist that each high performing team needs to uphold. A team that instills these principles into their culture and develops them into habits, will dramatically impact overall results. All seven of the principles build upon one another, but the foundational principle of 100% Responsibility represents the base of the model.

The next two principles of Trust and Communication are interrelated and also correlate with 100% Responsibility. The remaining principles of Healthy Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Focus on Results build—in ascending order—on 100% Responsibility, Trust, and Communication.

A leader needs to build the framework of his or her organization around the philosophy that “success” will be achieved by developing the seven principles into daily habits. John Wooden led UCLA to winning 10 NCAA National Championships, going down in history as one of the greatest college basketball coaches. Learn from Wooden, focus on being the right kind of team, and success will be achieved—your “scoreboard” will light up.


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