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Five Capacities of Exceptional Leaders

No coach better exemplifies what it takes to build a championship team than Coach John Wooden, former head coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team. With 10 NCAA championships, including seven consecutive titles (1966-73) and four undefeated seasons, Wooden created one of the greatest dynasties in college sports history.

However, as impressive as his track record is, it would be a mistake to summarize Wooden’s success by pointing to his wins. The scoreboard alone did not define him. In fact, when former players are asked to describe him, the numbers almost never come up. What you hear instead are countless stories of how he impacted their lives beyond basketball. They describe him as coach, teacher, guide, and role model.

Focused on the Mission & Equipping the Team for Success

This is what made Wooden a world-class coach – he was a man singularly focused on preparing his players for success, on and off the court. Wooden was passionate about developing his players and building a strong team. Put another way, he was passionate about his people strategy and the engagement of his team. He defined success by the strength of the team, and he put all his energy into developing the character and talent of the team. The scoreboard was just a reflection of the strength of his team.

This is what exceptional leaders do. They keep their eye on the ball, staying focused on the mission and equipping their people to accomplish the mission.

The Corporate World Needs More Men & Women Like Wooden

I’m confident Coach Wooden would have been just as successful leading in a corporate environment as he was coaching basketball. He was a leader and coach first – it was who he was. Basketball was merely the medium for him to fulfill his larger purpose in life. The world desperately needs more leaders who can have the kind of positive impact Wooden had. And the need is just as great in the corporate world as it is in sports and at home.

According to Gallup, only 30% of U.S. workers are actively engaged at work. That means 70% are NOT actively engaged. The stakes have never been higher. There is simply no way for an organization to be nimble when only 30% of their employees are actively engaged. Creating a culture of actively engaged people producing extraordinary results is a strategic imperative to survive and thrive.

While there are a host of reasons for these numbers, a lack of clarity regarding how to lead for engagement is at the top of the list. Positional leaders, from front-line supervisors all the way up to senior management, have their work cut out for them.

The 5 Capacities of Exceptional Leaders

So what was Wooden’s secret for creating an actively engaged team producing extraordinary results? He exemplified the 5 Capacities of Exceptional Leaders. This is a picture of the ideal leader, one who leads for engagement. And while every leader has flaws, truly exceptional leaders are consistent across each of these capacities.

1 - Models the Way

“He worked harder, longer, smarter, and was more dedicated, loyal, concerned, caring, detailed, meticulous, and enthusiastic than anyone I have ever worked with.” Bill Walton, NCAA & NBA Hall of Fame inductee and 2-time NBA champion.

If nothing else, Coach Wooden was a role model who strived to practice what he preached.

He exemplified the attitude and behavior he wanted to see in his players. The Bill Walton quote above says it all.

  • Engaged leaders produce engaged followers, and Wooden’s engagement with the team was off the charts.

  • He took 100% Responsibility for himself, never blaming the referees or players for his own shortcomings. He refused to make excuses when they lost.

  • What’s more, he was humble, lavish in giving others credit and ALWAYS learning.

Models the Way is foundational to leadership. A leader’s credibility and influence as a leader will rise or fall on their character and the example they set. In fact, none of the other capacities matter if you don’t get this one right.

2 - Influences the Heart

“People want to believe you are sincerely interested in them as persons, not just for what they can do for you.” John Wooden

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Coach Wooden understood this better than anyone else. Wooden genuinely cared about his players.

  • Note the distinction Wooden made in the quote above. He valued others for who they were, not just because of what they could do for him.

  • Like all exceptional leaders, he was intentional to provide appreciation and encouragement.

  • He invested in relationships and knew his players strengths and weaknesses, both on and off the court.

  • He was directive when the situation needed him to be but looked for opportunities to step back and extend trust, and he expected players to take ownership. In fact, he was known for staying seated during games, refusing to micromanage his team from the sidelines.

  • Wooden was astute at spotting the potential in his players, and he helped them reach their potential by challenging them to bring their best to every drill.

  • He communicated an inspiring vision and was effective at communicating the “why” that connected the team’s efforts to a bigger purpose.

The first two capacities, Models the Way and Influences the Heart, form the foundation for the team’s trust in the integrity and motive of the leader. Without trust there is no influence. Team members are significantly more receptive to coaching when they trust their leader.

3 - Coaches Others

“A coach is someone who can give correction [coaching feedback] without causing resentment.” John Wooden

It’s no surprise Wooden wrote a book titled “They Call Me Coach.” He was ALWAYS coaching!

  • Great leaders are masters at communicating clear expectations and coaching to those expectations.

  • He coached continuously, not just on the fundamentals of basketball, but on the character traits of a team player.

  • He provided clear feedback to help players grow because he was genuinely interested in seeing them reach their potential.

  • He expected his players to step up and take 100% Responsibility for their own behaviors.

  • Just as important, when coaching was not working, he had the moral courage to bench players for behavior that disrupted team cohesion, even when it meant sacrificing short term results. Why? Because he put the mission and team first.

Remember, the measure of success of a leader is the level of commitment and engagement of their team members. It is the responsibility of a leader to develop their people, and coaching is the most effective tool in the leader’s toolbox.

4 – Leads High Performing Teams

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” John Wooden

Wooden was uncompromising when it came to the culture of the team. His “pyramid of success” was made up of character traits that put team success before individual accomplishment.

  • He was just as focused on how players worked together (how they treated each other) as he was on developing their skills.

  • He recruited for character and was unwilling to compromise the culture of the team for “star” talent.

  • He refused to tolerate poor communication and fuzzy commitments.

  • He held his players accountable to high expectations.

  • He communicated a clear, simple mission and was relentless about making sure the team stayed focused on the fundamentals that would lead them to success.

This is what we mean when we say “Culture Is the Strategy.” Effective leaders have clarity on the characteristics of a high performing team and work tirelessly to create a culture where these behaviors are the norm.

5 – Gets Results

“Never mistake activity for achievement.” John Wooden

While Coach Wooden didn’t find his identity in the scoreboard, he cared passionately about winning. I don’t know anyone who wants to be part of a losing team.

  • Wooden expected extraordinary results because he believed his team was capable of extraordinary results.

  • He didn’t just coach to win the next game, he had audacious goals and coached the team to win the championship.

  • He was a master at focusing on the fundamentals and was crystal clear on the priorities. He viewed everything through the lens of the mission.

  • He held his players accountable for giving their best and achieving results.

  • Never complacent, he studied the team continuously to drive continuous improvement.

  • Finally, he was astute at reading the team to ensure the right people were in the right roles to best support the mission.

Coach Wooden, like all exceptional leaders, cared about achieving results because he cared about his team. They all wanted to win, and he didn’t let them down.

A leader is someone who knows where they are going and influences the head, hands and hearts of others to follow. This is the definition of leadership. The key word is “influence.” It is this influence that captures the heart and leads to commitment. This is the secret to leading for engagement.

If you want to be an exceptional leader, master these five capacities. Never stop working on yourself. Great leaders like Coach Wooden are never stagnant. Always learning. Continuously seeking feedback. Adjusting. Growing. It's how leaders become great. And, it's how companies become great.

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