• Mike Gore

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.