Coaching Today

Leadership Lessons from John Wooden

By Dr. Cory Dobbs


Leadership Lessons from John WoodenDBDo you need proof that leadership is not about style? The late John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, suggested that leadership is influence derived from one’s character. For Wooden, the ideal leader is someone whose life and character motivate people to follow. The best kind of leadership derives its capacity from the force of example, not from the power of position or personality.

Much of what passes as leadership today is nothing more than manipulation of people by sticks and carrots – threats and rewards. That’s not effective leadership for the long-term. Authentic leadership seeks to motivate people from the inside, by an appeal to the head and the heart, not by use of command and coercion. Compliance seldom, if ever, leads to authentic commitment.

Wooden influenced players through the character he displayed in everything he did, from the way he recruited student-athletes to the way he taught them to put their socks on.

For Wooden, character was the essential element necessary for great leadership.

Steve Jamison, author of best-selling books on John Wooden and Bill Walsh, spent 15 years working with Wooden on various books on leadership.

“As a teacher, leader and coach, he was extraordinary; as a person he was even more extraordinary. That’s a tough combination,” Jamison said.

Jamison began working with Wooden to share Wooden’s wisdom with coaches and leaders. At the time, Jamison couldn’t find a publisher because most thought Wooden was no longer relevant. As one publisher told him, “Coach Wooden is a little dusty on the shelf.”

Character, however, is never a quality to be shelved. Coach Wooden, as Jamison said, “Didn’t seek players who were characters. He wanted players who had character. Character was something that he felt essential to being a good performer, a good leader. Most of the problems we see today we can attribute to leaders who have little character.”

When You’re Through Learning You’re Through  

Coach Wooden practiced life-long learning – as you would expect from a great teacher. Jamison, a leadership expert and educator said, “A lot of leaders get to a position with a lot of authority and power, and it’s very easy to become overconfident and arrogant and think you know it all. John Wooden never made that mistake.  He was very secure in what he knew, but he never stopped learning. He never stopped looking for answers.”

“How willing are you to learn?” Jamison asks. “That doesn’t mean just opening a book or taking a course but how willing are you to challenge your beliefs and the way you do things, examining ways to improve. How willing are you to entertain new ideas? Whatever your level of success, self-evaluation is important.”

Jamison said Coach Wooden simply asked leaders, “How can you improve if you don’t have the ability to analyze yourself?” Jamison backed up this declaration from Coach Wooden by telling a story that exemplifies his commitment to self-evaluation.

“In Wooden on Leadership, Jamison explained, “he tells the story of getting to the 1962 semifinals of the NCAA national championships where UCLA played Cincinnati, the defending nation champs. They lost in the last seconds. On the flight back, his assistant coach Jerry Norman, said to him ‘Coach you know we got some guys coming in next year (Goodrich/Erickson). You know, maybe we should look at bringing in the full court press.’ Wooden knew what it was; he’d tried it his first two years at UCLA.”

“Maybe it’s time to revisit the press,” said Norman. Wooden, secure in his leadership, listened to his assistant. The next year UCLA pressed full-court. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Wooden on Teaching: The Little Things Make the Big Things Happen 

“One of the great abilities John Wooden had was his ability to take a complicated issue, distill it, so that, as he said, ‘little things make big things happen’” Jamison said.

“In my view, what it was that he did to teach leadership – and it’s not complicated – was he behaved like a leader. He acted like a leader. The primary teaching tool he used was his own life as an example,” Jamison said.

Coach Wooden was a proponent of the principle that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. According to Jamison, “John Wooden had an effusive way of letting players know he cared. His practices were ferociously intense. There wasn’t any slack in practice where you could hang out and shoot the baloney. He found time at the beginning when players were coming onto the court to take a moment, to pull someone aside as he was ambling over to the practice and ask about how things were going. ‘How’s your mother?’ ‘How’s that history class going?’ He did this to show his sincere care and concern for his players.”

Pyramid of Success 

Coach Wooden’s primary teaching tool has been his leadership model as distilled in his Pyramid of Success. Jamison commenting on this influential model for effective living said, “His definition of success isn’t about big; it isn’t about power, fame, fortune and prestige. For him the highest level, the highest standard of success is making that effort to become the best that you can become whether it is a coach, teacher, student or member of a team.”

“Success,” as Coach Wooden says, “is the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

About the Author: Cory Dobbs, Ed.D., is founder and president of The Academy for Sport Leadership in Peoria, Arizona. Dobbs is a former basketball coach at the high school, junior college and college levels. For more information on The Academy for Sport Leadership, visit the Web site at



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