5 of the Most Powerful Lessons Leaders Can Learn from Coach John Wooden

5 of the Most Powerful Lessons Leaders Can Learn from Coach John Wooden
John Wooden
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Business leaders can learn important lessons from many different sources, ranging from classic novels to former US presidents. Perhaps one of the most untapped sources of leadership lessons is coaches. Just as business leaders are in charge of the growth and development of groups of employees, coaches must ensure that teams have the skills and drive to win championships. Like teammates, employees must learn how to work together to maximize each person’s skills and strengths.

Consider John Wooden, one of the most legendary coaches in history who led the UCLA men’s basketball team to 10 victories, which included seven consecutive championships, an unprecedented feat in sports history. Wooden is widely recognized as one of the best coaches who has ever lived, and his wisdom has been recorded in a number of different books and interviews. Many of the lessons that he taught his players can translate to the office setting. Some of these lessons include:

    1. Make the best of things.

Individuals have very little control over most of the things that happen to them. On the other side of the coin, however, is that fact that people do have complete control over how they react to those things. Successful individuals understand how to transform adversity into opportunity. When you wallow in self-pity or allow circumstances to keep you down, you will not have a chance to succeed. By choosing to make the best of a situation—even a bad one—leaders will be able to keep their heads held high and open up new avenues of opportunity. Just because one path is no longer available does not mean that there is no way to get to the destination. This sort of resilience is critical for leaders and sets an excellent example for their followers.

  1. Prepare for the opportunity before it arises.

Players on a basketball court need to be ready for any situation that may occur. If they do not have the necessary physicality or teamwork skills, then they will fail. The situation is similar to the business world. Leaders need to develop their skills before the opportunity to use them arises. Once that opportunity comes, there is no longer time for practice and preparation. People must rely on whatever work has already been done. Business leaders need to think about those situations that they might face in the future and ensure that they have undertaken the necessary preparation for success. To that end, leaders also need to think about what direction they want the company to go in and ensure that employees are receiving the necessary training and experience needed to carry it out so that they are prepared once the opportunity arises.

  1. Focus on what matters.

One of Wooden’s most famous quotes is “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” With this quote, Wooden reminds us that success depends on working diligently, but not carelessly. Individuals need to keep their head in the game on and off the court and to concentrate on those things that matter. A large part of leadership is figuring out which details are important and which have only a minimal impact. Belaboring those points that have a minimal impact wastes valuable time and resources. At the same time, ignoring the details altogether is not an effective approach since success sometimes depends on perfecting certain details. Wooden used to have his players put on their socks in a very meticulous manner. While this may seem like a waste of time to most, he understood that folds or creases in socks could cause blisters and jeopardize performance.


  1. Use resources to enhance competitive advantage.

As a coach, Wooden was not known for allowing team members equal playing time. Rather than using 10 players in a given game and providing all of them a chance to be on the court, he rarely used more than seven players at a given time. In basketball, playing time is a valuable resource. By playing the seven most promising players together, these individuals would become more comfortable on the court and—more importantly—more in sync with one another. At the end of the season, those players would be ready to perform at the highest level possible. Leaders can learn a lot from this example. Often, leaders spend the majority of their time trying to develop their “problem” employees rather than focusing on their best employees. In reality, leaders can obtain the best competitive advantage by investing primarily in those employees who already show promise.

  1. Take a genuine interest in people.

Wooden believed that people will rise to the occasion when they feel that others take a genuine interest in them. Too often, leaders and coaches look at people in terms of what they can do for them and not who they are as people with families and hobbies. Similarly, in dating situations one can sense when another person is pretending to be interested in them. The same is true in the office setting, where people have perhaps become used to the feeling of feigned interest. As a coach, Wooden invested completely in his players. Business leaders who take a similar approach will see more cooperation and better results from their employees. With a true working relationship, employees feel more motivated to live up to expectations.