What I Learned about Leadership from John Wooden

By Louis Patler

Today, the best player in College basketball will be named to receive the John Wooden Award. It is the highest honor in the sport.

Louis Patler with John Wooden, Basketball Coach and the only person named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach.

Louis Patler with John Wooden, Basketball Coach and the only person named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach.

What may not be common knowledge about the selection process is that any finalist for this award must meet criteria set by Coach Wooden (1910-2010) himself for academic standing and community service. In his many years of coaching he is usually known as having won the most NCAA titles (10), and for being the only person named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. To me though, his greatness transcends the world of basketball. He was the quintessential life coach.

I knew Coach Wooden from my UCLA days and from his many camps, i.e. for close to 40 years. I once asked him what his proudest achievement was, and without hesitation he said that it was that every one of his players got their college degree! That is certainly a record that will never be broken, especially in an era of “one-and-done” with players turning pro after their freshman year,

I was thinking about many of Coach’s analogies that apply to business and how it is that today many companies face a “one and done” when it comes to retaining top talent. How, I wondered, would Coach build a lasting company culture in today’s business environment?

I offer just five of the many things I learned from Coach Wooden, lessons he taught me about leadership and teamwork that apply to business, things he ingrained in me in the gym:

1.    Start by learning how to tie your shoelaces.

The first practice of the year began with Coach calling us together, sitting us down on the bench and telling us to take off our shoes! Then he would demonstrate to us the proper way to tie our shoes in a double knot from now on.

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do,” he would say. We learned to control what was within our control.

2.    Use the backboard.

Once practice began on the court, he would emphasize fundamentals and teach us skills that had the greatest odds of success. He had determined that a much higher percentage of shots that use the backboard are successful over those that do not.

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

3.    Master the bounce pass.

In drills and in game simulations, we learned the many advantages of the bounce pass: it is more accurate; it is a harder pass to steal; it is easier for your teammate to control. Your teammates thanked you for it.

“You can’t live a perfect day until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

4.    Being “benched” is a great teaching tool.

In case we did not execute lessons 1-3 above, we learned quickly that we would get benched. No exceptions. Total consistency. Untied laces…benched! Not using the backboard…benched! Using a chest pass when we could have done a bounce pass…benched! We learned a lot, about basketball and about life sitting on the pine.

“Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”

5.    Character trumps reputation.

Above all, to Coach the measure of any person is found in what they value, what they believe in and how they then behave accordingly. He did not suffer fools. He had no tolerance for showboating. The bigger your ego the less impressive you were to him.

He was teaching us how to lead on and off the court. For example,

“The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”

If my leadership beliefs in Coach Wooden’s teachings make me sound like a zealot, then I plead guilty as charged. As Coach said:

“If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”