Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden

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“Am I the biggest? The best? The fastest?” These are questions that basketball Coach John Wooden suggests we avoid as leaders. While we all would like to get positive answers to these challenges, Wooden suggests they are actually detrimental to being a great leader. His tack is not to worry about whether we’re better than somebody else. What we must focus on is never to cease trying to be the best we can become. We have control over that; the other we don’t. Time spent comparing ourselves to others, is time wasted.

So what should we do? Wooden offers us his Leadership Pyramid: Fifteen progressive characteristics that he applied throughout his lengthy NBA career that describe his key facets of leadership. Join us for the next ten minutes to find out the building blocks for leadership success.
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According to Wooden, how we run the race—our planning, preparation, practice, and performance – The four P’s – count for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, an aftereffect, of that effort. First we must commit ourselves and organization to more than being first “by any means”. We need to promote success as making the most of our ability, skills, and potential in whatever circumstances—good or bad—may exist. Consequently, Wooden’s pyramid, like those at Giza, is built upon sound foundations.

The Corner Stones

Wooden’s pyramid has two fundamental corner stones: INDUSTRIOUSNESS and ENTHUSIASM. Cornerstones are important since all other stones are set in reference to them, determining the entire structure. There is no success without them.

Are you a dreamer or a do-er? Achievement is only attained through action. While many people may complain about a hard day at the office, it’s likely they didn’t lift a finger or think a thought. That’s not work. That’s not being busy. What we need to deliver is work in which we are fully engaged, totally focused, and completely absorbed. That’s Industriousness. Time flies by when we are industrious. Industriousness allows us to test and evaluate. Industriousness helps us deliver.

The second Cornerstone is ENTHUSIASM. Work without joy is drudgery. Drudgery does not produce great organizations. We will never be successful if we feel we are forever waiting for the workday to end so we can move on to something we’d rather do. We need to be enthusiastic about work. Wooden tells us as leaders, we must be filled with energy and eagerness, joy and love for what we do. If we lack Enthusiasm for our job, we can’t perform to the best of our ability. Success is unattainable without Enthusiasm.

Combined, Industriousness and Enthusiasm are contagious. A leader who exhibits them will find the organization does too.

The Load Bearers

The other blocks in the foundation of Wooden’s pyramid are FRIENDSHIP, LOYALTY and COOPERATION, qualities that involve positive interaction with people.

Friendship: Some may ask if its wise for a leader to become friends with those under his supervision. Wooden advocates friendship specifically in the guise of camaraderie and respect. Camaraderie means working together towards a common aim. It’s fundamental to a good team. But Wooden points out a risk: we should not play favourites, and not allow our preferences to cloud our judgment. In not doing so, we show respect and recognition of the strengths and contribution of each member.

Loyalty is part of being human and is fundamental to great teams. Wooden believes it’s impossible for us to be good leaders without loyalty to our organization and it’s not easy. It starts with loyalty to ourselves — our standards, our system, our values. Loyalty from staff comes when those we lead see that our concern for their interests and welfare goes beyond simply calculating how we can use them to our advantage. Wooden suggests that if we do so, we will find loyalty and a group of individuals who will stay committed even when things get tough.

Cooperation, the sharing of ideas, information, creativity, responsibilities, and tasks — is a priority of good leadership, but again not easy to attain. Wooden points out it’s difficult for a strong-willed leader to incorporate cooperation, because listening to others, may suggest uncertainty and doubt about our own judgment and convictions. Ego gets in the way of our eyes and ears. An effective leader understands that it is a sign of strength to welcome honest differences and new ways of thinking from those on their team as well as from others.

The Headstones

The second level of Wooden’s pyramid focusses on how we put our head to use as an effective leader. Wooden identifies four blocks.

SELF-CONTROL is essential for consistency in leadership and team performance and according to Wooden is a trademark of the true competitor and effective leader. Like the foundation of loyalty, control of the organization begins with control of ourselves. A true leader requires credibility and consistency in their actions, and this is hard to achieve without self-control. It starts with control of our emotions, and extends to having the resolve to resist the easy choice, the low hanging fruit and temptation in its various and alluring forms.

ALERTNESS, the ability to be constantly observing and interpreting what’s going on around us, is a critical component of leadership and the strive for continuous improvement. Wooden believes a great leader is awake, alive, and alert in evaluating themselves as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their organization and competitors. Leaders who succeed in a competitive environment are those who see things coming when their counterparts aren’t even looking. Alertness makes this possible.

INITIATIVE. A leader must have Initiative — the courage to make decisions, to act, and the willingness and strength to risk failure and take a stand even when it goes against the opinion of others. A weak leader stays in the contest, frequently to the eventual detriment of the group. According to Wooden, hesitancy, indecisiveness and fear of failure are not characteristics of good leadership. Mistakes are a part of winning. Good leaders make sure they’re the right kind of mistakes.

The fourth “headstone” is INTENTNESS. Wooden believes that without it we will falter, fade and quit. Intentness conveys diligence and determination, fortitude and resolve. When we have intentness, so does our organization. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. A leader lacking Intentness will lead a team intent on giving up. Intentness keeps us in the game even when others tell us the game is over.

The Heart of the Pyramid

The third tier of the pyramid concerns the more intangible factors of a great leader.

CONDITION: Wooden believes to achieve one’s potential as a leader in any organization requires mental and moral strength. He suggests we need to practice moderation and balance in all that we do. The leader must set the example, not only in areas of right and wrong but also elsewhere. Workaholics, for example, lack balance. Imbalance, in Wooden’s opinion, is a weakness that sooner or later causes problems. The first problem is likely to be inconsistency in performance. Being in good mental and moral condition is crucial to strong leadership. It starts with good physical condition, because a leader lacking it is less likely to summon the strength to stand up and fight for beliefs, ideals, and standards.

The second intangible factor is SKILL: We need to know all the facets of our job — not just parts of it — and be able to execute quickly and correctly. Being prepared to do all that our job requires will quickly separate us and our organization from much of the competition. Wooden suggests the best leaders understand that to successfully compete at any level requires continuous learning and improvement. Unless, as a leader, we communicate this up and down the line—and puts mechanisms in place to ensure it gets done—our team will not be at 100 percent in its performance level.

The third intangible is TEAM SPIRIT. As an experienced sports coach, Wooden is quick to point out that “The star of the team is the team.” Team Spirit is an eagerness to sacrifice personal interest or glory for the welfare of all. It’s a driving force that transforms individuals who are “doing their jobs correctly” into an organization whose members are totally committed to working at their highest levels for the good of the group. Members of such an organization are unselfish, considerate, and put the goals of the organization above their own, even at the expense of their own personal desires.

The Top Tiers.

Wooden suggests building on the three layers described provides us with a rich and rewarding harvest, one that will take you and your organization the rest of the way. He characterizes this in two attainments: POISE and CONFIDENCE.

Wooden defines poise as being true to oneself, not getting rattled, thrown off, or unbalanced regardless of the circumstance or situation. Poise means avoiding comparison to others, and acting like someone we’re not. Poise means having a brave heart in all circumstances.

As stakes increase and the challenges to you and your organization mount, our composure is increasingly challenged. Few characteristics are more valuable to a leader than Poise, especially when the competitive environment increasingly challenges your composure and equanimity.

According to Wooden, when we have poise we’ll perform at our own personal best because it counters panic. We’ll understand what we’re supposed to do, even when the odds are against us and everyone else says we’ll fail.

Confidence, like poise, is earned only by pursuing and attaining assets that allow us to reach our own level of competency—our inner potential.

Wooden warns us that confidence must be monitored so that it does not turn to arrogance. Arrogance, or elitism, is the feeling of superiority created on the assumption that past success will be repeated without the same hard effort that brought it about in the first place.

Wooden believes when we have properly prepared and built our own pyramid of success we will be able to top it with the last block: COMPETITIVE GREATNESS.

Competitive Greatness is not defined by victory nor denied by defeat. It exists in the effort that precedes success or failure. Competitive Greatness is not attained through fame, fortune, and power. It is attained on the journey, by learning through experience.

Like a physical building, Wooden’s leadership pyramid is held together by its own version of mortar: FAITH AND PATIENCE.

A leader must have Faith that things will work out as they should—a boundless belief in the future. A leader must also have patience and belief that good things come to those with persistence, consistency and perseverance. Leadership is not a quick win. Leadership is a long game based on investing for the future through the building blocks described.

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