10 Lessons on Business and Leadership from Legendary Coach John Wooden - rocketMBA
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10 Lessons on Business and Leadership from Legenda...

10 Lessons on Business and Leadership from Legendary Coach John Wooden

Growing up in Los Angeles and playing basketball, I always idolized UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden. He is widely regarded as one of the best coaches of all time in any sport. Even though he stopped coaching before I was born, John Wooden had a significant impact on me.

When I was about ten years old, I had the chance to hear Coach Wooden speak at a basketball camp, and he even signed a book for me. The book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court has stayed on my bookshelf wherever I have lived ever since.

As my career has progressed, I have been struck by how many of his teachings I have also found to be true in the business world. The following is the first part of a list of some of the parallels I see:

1. “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

I often have this Wooden quote playing in my head when I am working on a project or assignment. To me, it means to work diligently, not labor over things that have very minimal impact, but also not to make mistakes or be careless.

2. Focus your resources on enhancing your competitive advantage; as a leader, focus on developing talented individuals

Wooden was known for very unequally allocating his team’s most precious resource – playing time. Whereas most basketball coaches used deep benches and played 8, 9, or even 10 or more players in a game, Wooden primarily used 7 players.

He did this because he wanted his 7 most promising players to improve the fastest and get used to playing with one another. By the end of the season when the games really mattered, those players would be ready to play at a high level with each other.

In the workplace, managers are tempted to dedicate their time to the areas that most demand it – which tends to be the “problem” employees. However, when time or resources are dedicated to those individuals, the best employees receive less time and resources, and their development can suffer.

Therefore, it is important for managers to really make an effort to spend time and develop talented employees.

3. Be a role model and act like the person you want others to be

On this topic, John Wooden writes, “Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating. Youngsters need good models more than they need critics. It is one of a parent’s greatest responsibilities and opportunities. Too often fathers neglect it because they get so caught up in making a life they forget to make a life.”

I think this principle rings true in business as well. The best leaders depict the values they want their peers and subordinates to emulate through the way those leaders show up every day.

4. Motivate others by believing in them and letting them rise to the occasion, rather than through the threat of punishment

Wooden discusses how his father was tough on him, but did not physically hit him (which was probably the standard form of discipline at the time in the early 1900s).

He writes, “I’d almost rather have taken a whipping than hear him say he was disappointed in something I’d done. I wanted to please him and not let him down with my behavior…As a teacher, I wanted those under my own supervision to be motivated in the same way, to strive to be their best because I believed in them rather than from any fear of punishment.”

5. “Make each day your masterpiece.”

Wooden says, “Too often we get distracted by what is outside our control. You can’t do anything about yesterday. The door to the past has been shut and the key thrown away. You can do nothing about tomorrow. It is yet to come. However, tomorrow is in large part determined by what you do today. So make today a masterpiece. You have control over that.”

Most of us are guilty of living too much in the past and/or future at times, so Wooden’s quote really rings true for me. It’s a much more healthy way to go through life.

6. Trust others

“It has been said that you will be hurt occasionally if you trust too much. This may be true, but you will live in torment if you do not trust enough.”

This quote reminds me of the philosophy that Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger seek to have at Berkshire Hathaway – a system of deserved trust. A trust-based system is hard to build but is far more efficient than one that requires intense scrutiny and controlling every decision and action.

7. Focus on family

“Your family is what counts, and you must always remember that as you get caught up in your own professional responsibilities. I’ve very proud of the fact that while all the records were being set at UCLA by our basketball teams, I felt exactly the same way. Family is first. Always. Always.”

Pretty self-explanatory.

8. Focus on your character, not your reputation

Wooden writes, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are. Reputation is what people say you are…Character is how you react to things – sensibly, without getting carried away by yourself or your circumstances. A person of character is trustworthy and honest.”

One of my favorite professors in business school told me something almost exactly like Wooden’s quote. He said people often spend too much time worrying about how to shape others’ perceptions of them, rather than acting like a good person and having the perceptions build from that. I think that gives a lot of peace, because to me it means to focus on what you can control, rather than focusing on what you cannot control.

9. Be a lifelong learner

It is always remarkable to me how every successful person I know seems to believe what Wooden writes in the book:

“Always be learning, acquiring knowledge, and seeking wisdom with a sense that you are immortal.”

10. If you take a genuine interest in others, they will rise to the occasion

Wooden makes this one easy to apply to business and life, so I will end this post with his quote:

“People want to believe you are sincerely interested in them as persons, not just for what they can do for you. You can’t fake it. If you don’t mean it, they know it – just as you’d know if someone were pretending to be interested in you. In the workplace, you’ll get better cooperation and results if you are sincerely interested in people’s families and interests, not simply how they do their job. This will bring productive results. Most people try to live up to expectations.”


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Before graduating from Stanford GSB with an MBA in 2016, Alex worked for three years in public equity investing. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Alex enjoys hanging out at the beach with friends, playing basketball, and learning about history. He currently works in Equity Research in Downtown LA.

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