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3 lessons from the life and leadership of John Wooden

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John Wooden in 2006 (Wikipedia/Rep. Brad Sherman’s office)

Most people know the legendary basketball coach John Wooden for the 10 college basketball national titles championships (including four perfect seasons) his UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team won while he was head coach from 1948 until 1975.

Many people know Coach Wooden was inducted twice into the Basketball Hall of Fame — as a player and as a coach. Some know Wooden was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor.

Few, however, know about the event that constitutes his greatest contribution to the game of basketball.

A caring coach

After college Wooden married Nell, the love of his life and the only woman he had ever dated. He taught high school English in South Bend, Ind., and coached basketball until 1943, when he enlisted to serve in the Navy during World War II.

When he returned from the war, he was offered his old job. Other returning servicemen were not, however, and so he refused the offer because he felt it was wrong for the school to deny veterans the jobs they had left to serve their country. Instead, he accepted an offer to become athletic director and head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College.

Indiana State received a postseason invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball national playoffs for the 1946-47 season. After  Wooden learned that a young African-American second-string guard on his team, Clarence Walker, would not be allowed to participate in the tournament because of the color of his skin, he quietly declined the offer.

The following season NAIB officials invited Indiana State again, and this time decided they would allow Clarence to play, provided he didn’t stay at the hotel with his teammates and wouldn’t be seen publicly with them. Once again the coach declined. John and Nell Wooden thought of all the young men on the team as extended members of their family whom they loved, and they weren’t about to allow Clarence to be humiliated. But Clarence and his family saw it in a different light. They were excited about the opportunity for him to become the first African-American player in history to participate in the prestigious tournament. So they, along with officials from the NAACP, persuaded Coach Wooden that attending the tournament would help, not hurt, Clarence and other African-American players. The coach decided to accept the NAIB’s offer, and the team packed up to head to the playoffs in Kansas City.

On their way to the tournament, the team bus stopped for meals. If a restaurant wouldn’t serve Clarence, Wooden would make everyone get back on the bus. Often the team had to pick up food at grocery stores along the way and eat on the bus.

When Clarence finally walked onto the basketball court to warm up with his teammates, he appeared to be nearly paralyzed with fear. Many people in the crowd spotted the courageous young man, and they began to applaud. Indiana State made it to the finals, where they lost to Louisville. Because of Clarence’s courage and his coach’s resolve to stand up for what he believed in, the NAIB tournament was finally opened to African-American student-athletes. The following season, three teams brought African-American players with them to the tournament.

Teach character and competence

What was it about Wooden that produced such extraordinary success as a player and coach? There is an old saying that great leaders care about people and lead with skillful hands. This describes Wooden.

Wooden taught his players, as Bill Walton wrote, “if you lived up to your responsibilities as a student and a human being, then you earned the privilege of becoming a member of the UCLA basketball team.” Integral to meeting his standards was achieving the character values reflected in what he called “the Pyramid of Success.” The character values, or blocks of the pyramid, included industriousness, enthusiasm, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, self-control, alertness, initiative, intentness, condition, skill, and team spirit.

Wooden taught his players that believing and behaving in a way consistent with these character values produced poise and confidence that resulted in competitive greatness (that is, the desire to continuously challenge oneself in life). Patience and faith make up the mortar that holds all of the blocks together. When the pyramid was built, the person met the standards that Wooden believed made him a success and earned the right to be called a member of the UCLA basketball team.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played under Wooden at UCLA, would later write, “Coach Wooden had a profound influence on me as an athlete, but an even greater influence on me as a human being. He is responsible, in part, for the person I am today.” Bill Walton astutely observed that “we have become John Wooden ourselves.” And, in a sense, they did, by accepting Wooden’s beliefs, his character values, as their own. As Wooden worked to reproduce people who shared the values reflected in the pyramid, the UCLA basketball team became more connected to their coach and to each other.

Integral to Wooden’s view of valuing people was the notion of helping them reach their potential as basketball players and as people. Walton described it this way: “You were competing against an ideal, an abstract standard of excellence defined by John Wooden. The actual opponents mattered little. It was the ideal that mattered most.”

Wooden pushed his players to be the best they were capable of becoming, running long and demanding practices. If his players didn’t work hard enough during practice, as hard as he did preparing for it, he ordered them off the court, then had the student managers collect the balls, turn off the lights, and lock the doors.

A life lived for others

All of us, at some point in our lives, wonder how we will be remembered. What legacy will we leave? Wooden’s legacy and his connection with his players become clear when you consider Walton’s reflections, written in 2000, about the impact that Wooden had on his life:

“[Coach Wooden] taught us life at UCLA … his former players … always ask him to let us put a financial package together for him so he can buy his mansion on a hill … but every time he tells us no. The joy and happiness in John Wooden’s life comes today, as it always has, from the success of others. He regularly tells us what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa, is that a life not lived for others is a life not lived.”

On June 5, 2010, Wooden died. He was 99 years old. His legacy lives on in the countless lives of those he served whether it was through standing up against prejudice nearly two decades before the Civil Rights Act or through the life lessons he taught and walked. You will have a legacy to be proud of if you follow Wooden’s example by:

  1. Caring for the people you lead.
  2. Teaching and developing their character and competence
  3. Maintaining the attitude that a life not lived for others is a life not lived.

You can learn more about the life and leadership of John Wooden and other great leaders like him in “Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity” (Thomas Nelson). I’d like to offer you a free PDF copy by signing up for my Connect to Thrive e-mail newsletter at After you sign up, you will receive a welcome e-mail with instructions to access a link to the PDF file of the book.

Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners, speaks, teaches workshops and coaches leaders. He is the author of “Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity” (Thomas Nelson). Follow Stallard on his blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or on LinkedIn.