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  • Subject area(s): Business
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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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When one hears the name John Wooden, his accomplishments on the court as a college basketball coach often come to mind. Over his nearly 30 years of collegiate coaching, Wooden won 10 national championships, including seven in a row, had an 88 game winning streak, and finished with a .804 winning percentage (Biography.com).  More impressive than this however was what he did off the court, and how he inspired his teams to such great success.  There are three traits in particular that make Wooden such a successful coach, his focus on the process, not the results, his caring towards his players, and his drive as a level 5 leader.

After his coaching career was over, Wooden was asked what he missed most. He said that it wasn’t the bright lights, the big tournament games, but the practices is what he missed the most.  He missed this aspect the most because this was where the fundamentals were learned, and the process started. During practice Wooden was quoted as saying, “I'm not going to be talking to you about winning or losing because I think that's a byproduct of our preparation. I would much rather be focused on the process of becoming the best team we're capable of becoming” (Edelhauser). Wooden’s emphasis on preparation and not on the results can be evaluated using the two-dimensional model of managerial competence.  The two parts of the model are teamwork and results. There are managers who are only driven by results and there are managers who get the results, but don’t make them the driving force.  Wooden definitely wasn’t a results only manager, as the quote above stated, he was more concerned with the preparation and the team building than winning. He believed that the results would come if the groundwork and preparation were solid.  The results of this approach to team building are undeniable. From the .804 career winning percentage, to the 10 national championships, John Wooden’s teams were a success on the basketball court. In fact, Wooden only had one losing season as a coach, and that was his first year coaching at Dayton high school in Kentucky.  Wooden’s approach to achieving the desired outcome is something that we can learn from as future leaders and managers.  In order to get the results we desire, we don’t need to stress the outcomes, but rather stress the process and the preparation. If we focus on these two things, the results will be undeniable.

Another aspect of John Wooden that really stands out is his caring and appreciation for his players.  This goes back to the two-dimensional managerial competence model we looked at earlier. We already established that Wooden was successful in achieving results by stressing the preparation, but now we see that he also had the second half of the formula for being a competent manager, he built teams.  He did this by taking an interest in his players.  “My players know that I was interested in them and their families and [wanted to know] if there were any problems (Grover).” We often come across leaders who don’t care about their people; they lack the emotional intelligence to relate to their subordinates. This lack of intelligence often leads to problems in the workplace and is one of the major causes of managerial derailment.  We can look to coach Wooden as a model of how to avoid these problems.  He is quoted as saying,  “Make those under your supervision understand that you really care for them, not just for what they're doing in the corporation but that you really care for them. (Edelhauser).  By showing a genuine interest in his people and the real time problems they were facing, he was able to earn their respect and devotion.  It is a lot easier to work hard for someone who genuinely cares about you and wants what is best for you, and coach Wooden realized that.  

The last trait that sets Coach Wooden apart from his peers is his drive and ability as a level 5 leader. In the Harvard Business Review article on level 5 leadership, we meet Darwin Smith, a man who grew up with modest means, paid his way through school, become the CEO of Kimberly Clark, and led the company to becoming a worldwide leader in its industry. No one thought that this soft-spoken man would ever be able to lead Kimberly Clark.   There are a lot of parallels between Mr. Smith and Coach Wooden. Wooden grew up in Indiana on a small farm that didn’t have electricity (Biography.com).  This instilled a strong work ethic in Wooden that drove him the rest of his life.   What is even more astounding, the thing that set him apart from his peers was Coach Wooden’s humility (Riggio). He never did anything for himself; he always wanted success for the team, not an individual. If you look at Wooden’s 15 building blocks in his pyramid of success, you won’t find a single trait that glorifies the person, they all seek to make the individual better so the team benefits. In this aspect, Wooden was a level 5 leader, he had a huge amount of personal humility. On the contrary, Wooden was also fiercely competitive, almost to a fault.  Wooden would stop at nothing to give his team an advantage. One famous example is that he had the nets woven tighter in his home gym so that the ball would hang in the basket for an extra couple of second, giving his team a chance to set up the full court press (Zengerle).   There are also allegations that Wooden turned a blind eye to an illegal booster that gave his team improper benefits. Regardless of whether or not this is true, or if it was the right thing for Wooden to do, it shows how far he would go to win. This is the mark of a true level 5 leader, one who is reserved and humble when he needs to be, but also fiercely competitive.  John Wooden is a perfect example of this paradox.

John Wooden is considered one of, if not the greatest basketball coach ever.  He started with modest means from a small farm in Indiana, and became the winningest coach in college basketball history.  His on court success is undeniable, but what is even more remarkable is his off court leadership that propelled his teams to greatness. To do this Wooden was able to focus his players on the process and preparation for games, not the ticks in the wins and losses column. He also showed a genuine caring and appreciation for his players, who in turned gave 100% effort to a coach they respected and looked up to. Coach Wooden was also a level 5 leader who was able to be humble and reserved while also being fiercely competitive.  One doesn’t have to be an aspiring coach to model Wooden’s success; all of the qualities that coach Wooden exemplified are directly applicable to leaders in either the military or business workplaces.

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