John Wooden, Thank You

5 Jun

Originally uploaded by ETSU Photos

John Wooden, a remarkable coach and even better man, died yesterday.

Nancy and I had the great pleasure of meeting him many years ago when he came to Lincoln, Nebraska. What immediately struck me, and sticks with me today, is what a gracious, humble man he was. He certainly had much to crow about (ten national basketball championships and winning streaks that will unlikely be matched), but to his core he stayed true to his values.

In his speech to talked about his famous “pyramid”. It is his guide to living an honorable, productive, meaningful life. If you’ve not read his memoir “They Call Me Coach”, which includes his discussion of the pyramid, I certainly recommend it. It’s an easy read into the mind of a great leader, worth it even if you’re not a big basketball fan.

Wooden was a quote and quip machine. If you Google him you can find a bunch. Here are some of my favorites:

Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.

You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.

You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.

The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.

Never mistake activity for achievement.

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.

Peter Drucker once said that leadership is defined “by the presence of willing followers”. If that’s true (and I believe it is) John Wooden has to be defined as a great leader. To hear his former players such Bill Walton or Kareen Abdul Jabbar talk about him is inspiring. What’s so striking is the players talk much less about what Wooden taught them about the game of basketball, which given that he taught some of the game’s best players was significant. But to them his impact on their lives was much more about how to live off the basketball court. John Wooden taught them first to be good men who then became good basketball players.

Lest we think him a saint, he had his faults. He was occasionally mean-spirited, to the point of abusive, to opposing players. I credit him for identifying this fault and owning up to it in later years.

Great leaders should take a number of pages from his playbook:

  • He invested in knowing his players. He was involved in their personal lives. He truly cared, cared deeply, about them.
  • He built his teams around the talents of his players. He wasn’t afraid of changing the plays to fit the strengths of who was on his team at the time.
  • He showed them to be fierce competitors who were humble winners and gracious losers.
  • He held them to a strict set of rules when it came to manners and appearance and comportment.
  • He never pushed his personal faith on others, but was an example to them of what his faith called him to be.
  • He prepared them to be successful not just in their sport but for the rest of their lives.

Thank you, Coach Wooden. You have touched so many.

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