John Wooden Featured

7:00pm EDT November 22, 2005
He is, quite simply, the greatest basketball coach ever. The numbers speak for themselves: 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, including seven straight national championships, 38 straight tournament wins and 88 straight wins overall. You don’t build a record like that without being a great leader and without being able to mold and shape raw talent into cohesive teams that make winning a part of their very existence. A day after his 95th birthday, UCLA’s head basketball coach emeritus brought his leadership lessons to UCLA’s Alumni Weekend Conference, where he shared his thoughts on team spirit, teaching and — most important to him — poetry, during a conversation with author Steve Jamison and a group of business school graduates.

I don’t like to give advice. I’ll give opinions.

You’ve got to get across to each individual that what we are interested in is what is going to work for all. You have to think for the group and not just of yourself.

I once heard team spirit defined as a willingness to lose oneself in the group for the good of the group. I used that for a spell, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted somehow. Eventually, I decided that I would eliminate the word “willingness” and institute “eagerness” — an eagerness to lose one’s self in the group for the good of the group.

[A leader] is just part of the group. You have to be firm but not stubborn. Stubbornness we deprecate, firmness we condone. The former is my neighbor’s trait; the latter is my own.

We’re all different. The good Lord in his wisdom didn’t create us the same. Some players, for example, I had to pat on the back constantly, and there are others I had to pat a little lower and a little harder. You can’t treat everybody alike. You have to try to give everyone the treatment they earn and deserve under your supervision.

When you have to discipline, do it privately and not before others. Don’t embarrass them before their peers.

If a person in a leadership position shows interest and consideration and love for all those under their supervision, they will respond. And you can’t show them by just telling them. You’ve got to do it.

The person in the leadership position needs to set an example. Way back in the 1930s I read something that said, ‘No written word, no spoken plea/Can teach our youth what they should be/Nor all the books on all the shelves/It’s what the teachers are themselves.’

Everyone’s a teacher to someone. I think every leader in business, that’s what he is. He should be setting an example for those under his supervision.

You don’t know a thing that you didn’t learn from somebody else. Listening is the greatest teaching tool in the world.

Be careful about the rules you make. There is a gray area. In my earlier years, I saw no gray area. I was either this or that. And that was wrong and I made many mistakes as I look back.

My definition of success is peace of mind. Without that, in my opinion, you don’t have much, unless you have peace within yourself. Peace of mind in knowing that you made the effort to the best of which you are capable. You are the only one that will know that.

I think success comes from within oneself. I think an individual is the only one that can validly determine whether or not they have been successful. I think it’s like character and reputation. Your character is what you really are and you are the only one that really knows that. Your reputation is what you are perceived to be by others. They might not be the same. They could be, but not necessarily. As Mr. [H.L.] Mencken says, things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out.

My father gave us two sets of threes that he asked us to try to live up to: Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. The others ones were: Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Just do the best you can.

I think people are the same today as they were 50 years ago and will be 50 years from now. There will be changes in society. There’s no progress without change. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that there’s more emphasis today placed on material things. Material things are not lasting; they eventually all get away. Not enough emphasis is placed on things that are lasting. If we just try to get that idea cross.

I once spoke to Lewis [Alcindor] (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and I said, ‘You know, Lewis, I can work on our offense and make you the greatest scorer in collegiate basketball history. But I said we wouldn’t win any championships if we did that. And he said, ‘Coach, you know I wouldn’t want to do that. I’m more interested in what the team does.’ And he was that way. Fortunately, he was a superstar, and Bill Walton was a superstar, and they thought of the team first. As a result, I think the team as a whole did much better than they would have if they had been thinking of their individual statistics.

Grantland Rice, a great sportswriter whom most people have never heard of, back in the ’20s or ’30s wrote a poem on how to be a champion. It’s a little longer, but it starts: ‘You wonder how they do it/You look to see the knack/You watch the foot in action/Or the shoulder or the back./But when you spot the answer/Where the higher glamours lurk/You’ll find in moving higher/Up the laurel-covered spire /That most of it is practice/And the rest of it is work.’ And that’s the cornerstone of the [success] pyramid. It’s industriousness. It’s work. The other cornerstone is enthusiasm. You have to enjoy what you are doing. You can’t be looking for the short cut or the easy way or the trick all the time. Work. That’s essentially what that poem says.

How to reach: