Lead Like Coach Wooden

The following post was co-authored by Dr. Gordon Whitehead and his son Chris Whitehead...


Many years ago I read Be Quick But Don't Hurry by Andrew Hill and John Wooden. For many, John Wooden is a personal, as well as a national, treasure. For those who don't know about John Wooden, this may help -- as the basketball coach for UCLA, his teams won 10 NCAA championships in 11 years. Clearly, Coach Wooden knew something about leadership, building winning teams, nurturing talent, and creating lasting relationships.

I'd like to discuss a few of the golden nuggets one of Coach Wooden's players, Andrew Hill, shares in the book.

Nugget 1: Be Quick - But Don't Hurry

Coach Wooden realized speed can actually be detrimental to performance, and most young players will play faster than they should if allowed. Resisting the temptation to play too fast is difficult and requires discipline. Operating under control produces far greater and consistent results than operating under haste.

During the Wooden era, UCLA was famous for their press. Many thought the press was designed to "steal the ball." But, the truth was the press was designed to cause the other team to play out of control. As a result of playing out of control, the team would cause their own turnovers through bad decisions and hurried processes.

Organizational leaders can be guilty of pushing for speed. I once worked for a talented General Manager of a company who, quite literally, bet the company on the promise of a new software solution she wanted to take to market. Her idea was sound. But, she failed to listen to design advice, timeline advice, market advice, and even budget advice from the team that she commissioned to frame her project. Instead, she believed that if she pushed for speed, everything would work its way out. She was confident that the team she commissioned to advise her was over-padding their estimates in every category. She could not have been more wrong. As a result of the unnecessary push for speed, the project ran over budget by a quarter of a million dollars, took longer to complete by almost a year, and did not have the features the market wanted or needed. The result? Speed produced disaster -- a large corporate "turnover" in the 4th quarter that cost that company its existence.

Leaders need to be patient and encourage patience. This doesn't mean we go slow - it means we move quickly, but always within control so that errors are not a result of our carelessness. We want to be the leaders that capitalize on the competition's errors rather than feeding the competition with our own errors.

Nugget 2: Leaders Teach

Coach Wooden had a formula for teaching. He followed a four step process:

Demonstration. Leaders provide a clear demonstration of what and how something is to be accomplished. In basketball, this often requires the coach to "show" how something is to be done. Verbalization alone is not enough. Good leaders show how to do a skill by doing it themselves, by drawing it on the whiteboard, by using metaphors, stories, examples, and keywords to invoke in the mind of the follower the concept being instilled.
Imitation. Leaders provide a way for followers to practice by imitating the demonstration. This is done in a safe environment where it is okay to make mistakes and try new skills.
Correction. Leaders use the imitation phase to correct so that the follower can get the skill in place with precision. Correction must be positive and encouraging so that followers are encouraged to try new things and move out of their comfort zones. Yet, correction must be done in order to assure skills are learned properly.
Repetition. Once the skill is understood and precision achieved, the skill is repeated over and over until it becomes a part of normal behavior. This way no bad habits creep in. Repetition fosters true learning.

In business and organizational management leaders might consider taking on a role that models teacher over director. Teach so that the team can perform at a proper speed, under proper game-like condition, and under realistic pressure. The Wooden 4-step method is unbeatable for developing people as well as basketball players.

Nugget 3: The Team With The Best Players Does Not Necessarily Win

It's not about talent so much as it is about teamwork and commitment. Sometimes the organization's superstar over-values their own talent and doesn't distribute opportunity. This damages teams and keeps other team members from developing.

At the same time, people may need to be cut from the team if they are not measuring up.

"You cannot expect to encourage teamwork in an organization where weak performers are allowed to keep their jobs."

In a world where we operate in teams, (business, education, sports, etc.) neither the underachiever nor the myopic, selfish performer should be tolerated.

Wooden Was A Master Leader

John Wooden was a master leader. He not only coached championship teams, but he developed championship people. In closing, here are three quotes that provide insight into his character and should inspire those seeking to understand how to lead a championship organization.

"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are; reputation is what you are perceived to be."

"If we magnified blessings as much as we magnify disappointments, we would all be much happier."

"The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success."

We learn to be leaders from other leaders. Who are your leadership role-models? Do you look to the greats or living locals?

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