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Profiles of ethical leadership in sports coaching: John Wooden

This is the first in a month-long series of five posts about historically significant sports coaches as exemplary models for ethical leadership values. Today’s post will focus on John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. November 8th’s post will analyze the famous “14 rules” of Johan Cruyff as business values to promote organizational and employee integrity. On November 15, the profile will be about Jim Valvano and the inspiring speech he gave at the ESPY Awards only two months before his untimely death in 1993. Vince Lombardi, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, and his insights on the ethics of leadership and performance will be the focus on November 22. Finally, on November 29, a contemporary coach will be the final profile along with the previous leaders from sports history, with the focus on NBA coach Gregg Popovich.

These coaches are all beloved, legendary figures whose importance in society extends far beyond their teams, and for good reason.   Beyond inspiring players and other coaches who develop with them or work alongside them, the ideas coaches share about motivation, personal growth, attitude, and performance can easily translate from the court, pitch, or field to all areas of life.

No discussion of legendary coaches in sports history is complete without mentioning John Wooden, so it is logical to start this inquiry with him. John Wooden was the head basketball coach at the University of California Los Angeles from 1948 until 1975. During that time, he coached the team to ten NCAA national championships in 12 years, seven of those in a row. For his many storied accomplishments at UCLA, Wooden was named coach of the year six times.

Apart from his winning record, Wooden is renowned for his popularity among his former players, many of whom recognized him as having shaped their lives positively. He is well-known for his organizational leadership and insights which have been translated as tips for success in life in general, often relying on simple and straightforward inspirations for positive behavior and attitude. Wooden defined many leadership and performance principles to inspire his players to achieve their best in basketball and life. These were embodied by, for example, his Seven Point Creed, which included being true to yourself, helping others, building relationships, seeking advice, and being thankful, and the Pyramid of Success.

The Pyramid of Success describes 15 blocks which, when considered in performance and strategy, support competitive achievements which can be reached through a values-based approach. These 15 qualities are: (1) industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm; (2) self-control, alertness, intitiative, and intentness; (3) condition, skill, and team spirit; (4) poise and confidence; and, culminating in, (5) competitive greatness. These are supported by, on one hand, from bottom to top: ambition, adaptability, resourcefulness, fight, and faith; and on the other hand also from bottom to top: by sincerity, honesty, reliability, integrity, and patience.

This balanced approach demands that any individual hoping to reach competitive greatness must take into consideration the personal qualities and resilience that are required to get there. In this model, quick wins or external satisfaction are not emphasized; instead, building character ethic and cultivating a measured path to the desired achievement.   These values are not special to basketball or sport. They are also not mere business principles. They are a life philosophy and paradigm which an individual can consistently carry though all of his or hers endeavors. The hard work a person devotes to the dual goals of sustaining faith and patience provide the momentum for the culmination in success.

For an interactive look at this, check out the website memoralizing him, which has a section devoted to the Pyramid of Success.

The key takeaway from the Pyramid of Success, and many of Wooden’s finer management and development insights, is that success and winning are not synonyms. A person can reach competitive greatness, the ultimate stage of the Pyramid of Success, but that does not mean the result will be winning every time thereafter. By the same token, an individual game or effort can result in a win, but that does not mean intrinsic success has been achieved in a sustainable, credible way.

In Wooden’s words in his 2001 TED talk (linked below), success is defined as “peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” This is not something others can judge or define and does not come from an external performance or perception. This sense of self-accomplishment, win or lose, prevail or fail, can only be reached through hard work, the commitment to which is supported by equal doses of patience and faith.

Watch and read Wooden’s TED talk, “The difference between winning and succeeding,” here.

Having a commitment to this internally-motivated model of success is powerful for determining that the results of one’s effort will be about the integrity with which it was made. Individuals and organizations can inspire a values-based approach to work from this management mechanism. Getting there is the most important part of the process of “being” there. If the emphasis is on winning, competition, profit, attention, and external accolades, then the internal values will be missing to sustain the accomplishment. But, if the emphasis is on growth, hard work, relationships, learning, preparing, and internal satisfaction, then the greatness achieved will last long enough to get the win and keep much more after that.

For a great study of the enduring legacy of John Wooden, check out this Sports Illustrated article by Seth Davis from March 2017.

Also, don’t forget to check back next Wednesday when this series continues on to look at Johan Cruyff, legendary Dutch footballer and manager whose coaching philosophy is credited with revolutionizing the game of football.

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