July 1, 2010


“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”
—John R. Wooden

John R. Wooden, one of the great teachers and leaders of the last century, died in June at the age of 99. Of course to most people, Wooden was known as Coach Wooden, the man whose basketball teams at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) won 10 NCAA championships—seven of them in a row from 1967–73—completed two consecutive 30–0 seasons, compiled an 88-game winning streak and ran up a 81.3% winning percentage during his career as a college coach.

All of those marks are records that may never be equaled. Even if Wooden were simply a basketball coach, he would still be remembered as the best who ever graced the college courts. But the true greatness of John Wooden was the way that he used basketball to teach his players and admirers about life. He was a wise man, and the sort of leader who sets examples that became standards for a lifetime.

“It’s very difficult for me to put into words the greatness of John Wooden,” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of his players, who rushed back from Europe to see Wooden one last time on his deathbed. “He was so much more than a basketball coach. To have him in my life was a true blessing. I will always be grateful I was able to be one of his students.” Said Bill Walton, another basketball Hall of Fame member, “Now that he’s gone, it’s up to us to carry on his ideals of peace, love, excellence, education and service.”

Wooden, a former English teacher, studied the elements of leadership throughout his life and taught leadership for many decades. His “Pyramid of Success” is one of those deceptively simple collections of ideas, any one of which is its own building block for lifelong improvement. Here are just a few:

Industriousness: Success travels in the company of very hard work. There is no trick, no easy way.”

Skill: What a leader learns, after you’ve learned it all, counts most of all.”

Confidence: The strongest steel is well-founded self-belief. It is earned, not given.”

Wooden urged: “Make each day your masterpiece. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Make greatness attainable by all.”

Imagine how different our world would be if more of our “leaders” understood their responsibilities the way that John Wooden understood his own. Wooden believed that “the star of the team is the team. ‘We’ supersedes ‘me.’” How refreshing and how very, very uncommon, especially in today’s ego-driven environment.

In photographs, Wooden is often seen in thoughtful reflection, two fingers upraised across his silent lips, eyes closed in concentration. He’s doing what so few of us take the time to do. He’s thinking, deeply, about ideas. His talks were often punctuated with quotations from Shakespeare, Cervantes or from poetry, its source perhaps long lost, that carried a lesson about life well lived.

All of us who are leaders, or who aspire to be, can learn from his example. All of us would be far better off if more of today’s leaders followed the lessons of his rich and extraordinary life.