Wizard's influence went beyond basketball

Steve Henson

LOS ANGELES – Eleven years ago I introduced my son, Danny, to John Wooden before a UCLA basketball game at Pauley Pavilion. It was a thrilling moment for me, and Danny, then 9, seemed thrilled that I was thrilled. I covered UCLA for the Los Angeles Times and had interviewed Coach Wooden on a handful of occasions. This was different. This was as if I were introducing my son to God. Coach Wooden took the copy of his autobiography, "They Call Me Coach," from Danny's hands and signed it. The three of us chatted for a moment, and upon saying farewell Coach Wooden extended to my son that kindly, knowing, eternally paternal smile, that gift of purity and goodness he bestowed so freely on so many for so long.

Tears welled in my eyes as we walked away. I looked down at Danny and he was grinning, wide-eyed. "Dad!" he exclaimed. "Coach Wooden has the biggest earlobes I've ever seen!"

Years later it was the autobiography that became dog-eared, Danny having read it repeatedly to glean life lessons that couldn't be learned from Dad or friends or even his own coaches. Wooden alone possessed the standing to state something as straightforward as, "Focus on effort, not winning," and have the words hurtle beyond bromide and past cliche to resonate as an unadulterated secret to success. His words had depth. They were words to the wise. They were pathways to fulfillment for several generations of not only American sportsmen, but of anyone who wished to reach his or her potential, to put forth effort and increase the chances that you, too, might in your chosen profession capture the equivalent of 10 national championships in 12 years.

If Wooden, who died Friday in Los Angeles at age 99, loved anything more than lists, it was simplicity. And his simple lists of the qualities necessary for success are the objects of intensive academic study. His advice on how business executives can become better leaders consisted of 10 brief terms told to a reporter a few years ago: Listen. Care. Recognize. Prepare. Be industrious. Have enthusiasm. Be patient. Have confidence. Don't fear failure. Win respect.

The UCLA Anderson School of Management gives out an annual John Wooden Global Leadership Award to an executive who reflects the coach's leadership values. The first three recipients have been Starbucks Corp. Chief Executive Howard Schultz, American Express Chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault, and FedEx Chairman and CEO Frederick W. Smith. During his award acceptance speech a year ago, Chenault turned to Wooden and said, "What impressed me and had an impact on me, Coach, was how you really just sat, composed, with your [game] program, and there were no histrionics. And the impression it left on me was that this person has it all together. He's totally prepared, and that poise and composure under pressure had an incredible impact on me. … To be an outstanding leader, particularly in a crisis, you must demonstrate composure at all times."

Wooden's Pyramid of Success is, of course, his most legendary collection of maxims. From the ground floor of essential qualities to the pinnacle of Competitive Greatness, the pyramid is as much something to dream on as it is to actually implement. Less known is the definition of success Wooden coined in 1934 at age 24 after graduating from Purdue as a three-time consensus All-American and shortly before launching his coaching career: "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." Maybe the awkward syntax made it less than a household phrase, but Wooden repeated it in various forms throughout his life.

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. Wooden timeline
Source: "They Call Me Coach" by John Wooden with Jack Tobin

Smith, who founded FedEx in 1971, memorized the Pyramid of Success in the early stages of his company's growth. "The principles of effective leadership have been known to us since the Greeks," he said. "It's no mystery. It's all there in the Pyramid of Success. That's what it takes. But most of us don't have the discipline."

Small wonder Wooden's philosophies have served as inspiration for leaders in many walks of life. He was the ultimate mentor and the ultimate expert in mentoring. Twenty-one of Wooden's "secrets" were enumerated in a book authored in 2001 by one of his former UCLA players, Andy Hill. Writing the book was cathartic for Hill, a frustrated seldom-used reserve on three national championship teams from 1970 to 1972. He went on to become a television executive and one day was struck by the realization that everything he knew about getting the best out of people he had learned from Wooden.

After reconnecting with his old coach and spending many hours listening to him, Hill came to believe that far from being an anachronism, Wooden was ahead of his time.

"It's no coincidence that the secrets interconnect and overlap in a million different ways," Hill wrote. "They ultimately form a tight and potent system that has proven its success over long periods of time and despite enormous turnover in key staffing. They also hold the key to unlocking the explosive potential your company must exploit to be a dynamic force in the 21st century.

"While 20th century business success was defined by management's ability to streamline production efficiency, best exemplified by Henry Ford's assembly line, General Patton's relentless war machine and Vince Lombardi's coolly efficient Green Bay Packers, that paradigm no longer applies. … The companies that can harness creativity and develop new ideas will rule the 21st century."

Wooden's management concepts, Hill believed, created a structure where "talented, sometimes difficult, creative people are empowered to work together and flourish." Basketball, a game that requires a blend of individual creativity and clockwork teamwork, was a perfect Petri dish for Wooden's "startlingly futuristic" ideas.

A smattering of Wooden's favorite sayings follows. Some he thought up himself, others he heard, memorized and made his own:

• "The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team."

• "Ability is a poor man's wealth."

• "A great leader cannot worry about being well-liked."

• "Great leaders give credit to others but accept the blame themselves."

• "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

• "Practice doesn't make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect."

• "Be quick – but don't hurry."

• "Don't give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you."

They all ring true and are applicable in a multitude of career and life situations. They are unvarnished and uncompromising. Yet delivered by Wooden, whether to a 9-year-old boy or Fortune 500 executive, they were always accompanied by that kindly smile. Wooden wanted you, too, to walk the path of enlightenment he'd found. He'd guided you to it, and his smile was his way of saying that he hoped you'd take the first bold step.