Further Thoughts on John Wooden and the What-If Question


  • ·         John Wooden is one of my most popular historical leadership development case studies (I’ve got 60 of them). I think the three most important takeaways from Wooden’s leadership experience. They are: the Lasting Imprint (how to help your followers gain lifelong lessons from their relationship with you); Shoes-and-Socks (how to promote equality and teamwork among your followers); and the 3-by-5 cards (how to link training and education to your overall organizational strategies).
  • ·         I’ve developed a brief, common-sense guide—entitled The Tackle Box, found in the “Shop” page of my website—for using each of Wooden’s three takeaways in your leadership right now. I think you’ll see immediate results if you follow the guide and put Wooden’s techniques to work in your leadership. The Tackle Box is a new feature for me. I’ve designed it to be a no-nonsense, practical, and results-oriented tool for strengthening your daily leadership. I’ve purposely kept the fee at a very modest level ($5 via PayPal); it’s roughly the cost of a Starbucks coffee and pastry…without the jitters! Check it out. Easy to buy, easy to use, and easy to improve.
  • ·         Dig deeper into the concept of a what-if question. Does it strike you as another form of regret? Or, do you think of your what-if example as setting the stage for bigger and better things later in life? Separately, I think part of the value of asking the what-if question of yourself is that it can help you think historically about your own life. You can begin to interpret and assign meaning to particular chapters of your experience.
  • ·         Why do you think John Wooden is one of my most popular case studies? Here’s my take on it: he is Midwestern and thus readily identifiable to many of my alumni; he radiates values and principles that are familiar, recognizable, and time-tested; he displays an appealingly modest demeanor; and he seems like the model grandfather. What else? Let me know your thoughts.
  • ·         I’m not sure I’ll ever use another sports figure for one of my case studies. It’s hard to beat Wooden.
  • ·         Nevertheless, some of you know that I’ve often, and truthfully, said that Peyton Manning is my template for my business/calling. I have no idea as to the facts of Manning’s off-the-field conduct; my use of him as a symbol in my business/calling rests solely on his approach to football and his football position (quarterback).
  • ·         Let me give you a few examples of what I regard as the historical side of John Wooden’s leadership. First, Wooden’s years at UCLA coincided with two key developments—the population and economic explosion of California and the rise of major college sports as a business. Second, Wooden is vastly underappreciated for having rejected the cultural environment of Indiana’s Morgan County in the 1920s of his youth. This region was rife with the most hideous forms of racism; yet Wooden turned away from these attitudes and ultimately became involved with numerous African-American players. Third, Wooden crafted his famous “Pyramid of Success” (google and download a copy of it) in the 1930s and 1940s, loosely in his 20s and 30s. Think of that for a moment—how confident would you be of developing in your young adulthood a life-long template for personal growth? Fourth, Wooden demonstrates the power of parental influence. I return again to the issue of racism in the 1920s/30s. Wooden’s parents instilled in their children something very different than the common mindset of this part of Indiana in that era.
  • ·         Wooden isn’t perfect. During his years at UCLA, especially those of his national championship teams, there were rumors about recruiting violations committed by a handful of wealthy alumni. Wooden, it was said, did not participate, however, neither did he appear to stamp out the alumni’s supposedly questionable tactics. For this reason, former Indiana University coach Bob Knight was never an avowed Wooden supporter. In fact, Knight was often quite tight-lipped about Wooden, with his body language showing signs of disdain for the UCLA coach. Of course, you couldn’t get two more different people (and leaders) than John Wooden and Bob Knight. Which approach do you think is more effective in leadership?
  • ·         One of Wooden’s personal heroes is also another of my leadership case studies, Abraham Lincoln. Since we’re talking about some of Wooden’s personal favorites, one of his favorite pastimes is poetry.
  • ·         Wooden was born in 1910, the same year that Florence Nightingale, regarded as the founder of modern nursing, died.
  • ·         Would Wooden have been remembered as a leader if he had not won so many games and national championships? I think yes, except that the circle of people who would remember him would be much smaller. I do think, though, that in today’s world of big-time college athletics that Wooden would not be allowed to remain coach of a high-profile college basketball program for 16 years without a national championship (he began at UCLA in 1948 and won his first national title in 1964).
  • ·         Wooden was candid in saying why he left high school teaching (in English). He said that he disliked the use of a grading system. Wooden said it failed to reward those students who tried as hard as they could, regardless of their talent or skill level. What do you think this suggests about Wooden’s leadership?
  • ·         Whenever you try to translate leadership from a team sport to your daily life, please be sure you devote at least a little time to identifying the clear linkages between the one and the other. Also, find the most glaring differences between the two worlds.
  • ·         One of the more realistic—some would say “harsher”—elements of Wooden’s leadership experience is his belief that not all team members are equal in ability. They are similar in the need to do their best and give their all but they’re very dissimilar in what they’re physically able to do. Wooden’s teams had stars and non-stars. Stars played, and non-stars didn’t. I see it from a couple of angles. First, we don’t often like to admit that in today’s leadership environments, some followers are simply more effective than others. Still, we sometimes don’t have the luxury of keeping followers “on the bench” because if they’re effectively sidelined, they are essentially wasted resources.