John Wooden - 5 amazing lessons on leadership

John Wooden - 5 amazing lessons on leadership

John Wooden was a legendary basketball coach and I have learned a lot about management and leadership by indulging in his writing.

I believe there is much to be learned from reading about the successes, processes and behaviours of other people.

I spent a long time reading his work and thought I’d share 5 core lessons from his book Wooden on Leadership.

Read on or watch the video

John Wooden was a well-respected, talented and successful basketball coach. His career success is impressive, but more impressive to me, was his attention to behaviours and process. Two topics you’ll know I talk a lot about on this blog.

I’m also a basketball fan and used to play pro basketball. Back in the day 🙂

It was hard finding just 5 lessons from John Wooden. To be fair, you could dip his book Wooden on Leadership in highlighter fluid – it’s so good.

It’s why it’s one of my 9 recommended books for managers.

The core underlying principle that runs through a lot of what John Wooden wrote about, is the principle that we should make every day our masterpiece. We should bring our best selves to every day and make the most of each day.

He was happy with the result of a game, if he knew everyone played their best – win or lose. John Wooden would rather lose, and everyone play their best, than win knowing his team didn’t put their all into it.

It’s a great ethos for any budding manager – bring your best self – and encourage those under your supervision to do the same. Whether we achieve our bright future or not – at least we’ve given all we can trying.

Lesson 1 – Make greatness attainable by all

John Wooden tried to instil the idea that everyone can achieve their true potential, no matter your role or job. If you give your all, and the team all pull together – then everyone has the potential to reach their greatness.

It’s something I’ve tried to instil in my own work and my teams. If we all come together around a goal or vision or True North, we can all play a part – and in doing so – we should be able to reach a great potential.

So how do you do this as a manager? Here are some ideas:

  • Get to know each of your direct reports.
  • Get to know their strengths, weaknesses and aspirations – design work so they can bring their best self to it.
  • Don’t “manage” your team and treat them as “whole”.
  • We work with individuals – not teams.
  • Don’t treat people like YOU would want to be treated.
  • Treat them like THEY want to be treated.
  • Paint a bright future for the business or team – and make your problems so compelling that talented people want to help to solve them.
  • Give feedback as close to the event as possible.
  • Make that feedback about behaviours – and not about them.
  • Give WAY more positive feedback than critical.
  • Listen to people.
  • Then act on what you’re learning.
  • Give credit where it is due.
  • Be aware that success in business is rarely due to the actions of one person.
  • Ensure everyone acknowledges the “team” effort.
  • Deal with low performance.
  • Greatness is a team effort – don’t let individuals lower the bar.

Lesson 2 – Your own example counts the most

John Wooden lead by example. He showed people what it was like to be a great coach and leader. He didn’t use maxims, inspiring words and philosophical ideas without the actions to back them up. He demonstrated his beliefs and views in his behaviour.

We must set the bar high for the behaviours we want in the organisation – and then hold ourselves accountable to those behaviours. A good manager strives to be an example to others.

The best example is through actions – not words.

After all, actions always speak louder than words.

Lesson 3 – Alertness

John Wooden spent a lot of energy studying his world of basketball.

He would study his players, so he knew where to focus coaching and feedback. He would study the competition to ensure he met them with a good strategy. He would study the game of basketball and look for ways to improve it. He would study the industry and learn how it works.

His book is full of great stories of study.

Knowledge is only gained through studying. There are plenty of ways to study, but without study – we will never know how to get better.

Without study we won’t know what our people are good at, what the market is doing, how our customer’s needs are changing, or how the organisation is shifting to meet the challenges it faces.

With a wider awareness we will be surprised less often. Great managers are always studying. They are always learning.

And a key aspect of all of this is being alert. Being alert to changes, to behaviours, to process, to results, to cause and effect and to the demands of the marketplace.

As John Wooden points out in his book – alertness also lets you see things others don’t. It’s a competitive advantage in business – but also in our careers too.

Lesson 4 – Call yourself a teacher

John Wooden was a coach and leader but at his core, he was a teacher. John Wooden saw his job as teaching other people.

It’s a great way to think about management and leadership. There’s an old saying that leaders create the leaders of tomorrow – but only if they teach and role model.

Great managers and leaders are always alert and learning. This builds knowledge. But there is little point in building great knowledge if we then don’t share it back.

I have a four stage model to my Personal Knowledge Management System.

It is:

  1. Capture
  2. Curate
  3. Crunch
  4. Contribute

The fourth step, contribute, is this very idea of being a teacher.

There is little point in hoarding on to knowledge. We should share it, teach others and help other people grow in their careers.

Teaching is also the best way to truly learn a subject. There is nothing like the daunting task of teaching people something, to help us find the gaps in our knowledge, or work out how to simplify our message, or condense a complicated subject down into easy to learn steps.

Learning and teaching go hand in hand. Managers who see themselves as teachers help others get better. And who doesn’t want to work with a manager who’s going to share their knowledge?

Lesson 5 – Cultivate Consistency

I don’t just like this lesson because it has the word Cultivate in it – I like it because it’s important.

  • Consistency is how we do the tasks ahead of us – whether we feel like it or not.
  • Consistency is how we show other people we can be trusted and demonstrate to others what we value.
  • Consistency in mood, behaviours and treatment are how people learn how to work with us.

John Wooden talks about how emotions open up managers and leaders to inconsistency – I’ve seen the same thing in my own life. When my emotions over-ride me – I act and behave inconsistently.

A core part of being a manager or leader is developing a kind of stoicism. To learn to control our emotions and think logically and rationally – easier said than done. But it is something to cultivate.

By being in control of ourselves, we can be of more service to others. People know how to work with us. People know how to approach us. People know what to expect.

Consistency requires consistent behaviours – but it also requires a plan of action, energy to overcome obstacles and an approach to work that people can rally behind.

There are LOADS of lessons in this book – but these 5 are very relevant to management – and of course, what I’m trying to do here at Cultivated Management.

This book really is a gem, but basketball might not be your thing. Whatever you’re into – there will be a leader in that field who has a guidebook that you can learn from.

Reading about how other people achieve success allows us to learn. It allows us to mash what they do together with others, and what we have seen work.

I for one am grateful to all the leaders, like John Wooden, who have simplified and shared what helped them succeed. It’s the ultimate form of contribution – to teach others what works.

We’re always standing on the shoulders of giants.