John Wooden: Coach and Philosepher

John Wooden is considered one of the most outstanding basketball coaches in the history of the game. His success, however, came not from the techniques he practiced as a coach, but from the philosophy of leadership that he developed over time. It took him fourteen years to shape and define it, but once he was satisfied with it – he eventually identified seventeen qualities of success and organized them in a pyramid – he applied it systematically, with the kind of results that justly earned him the accolades reserved for very few.

His philosophy of leadership and his definition of success (“the peace of mind obtained only through the self-satisfaction of knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable”) stand in stark contrast to the usual definition of success in sports (“winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing”).

This philosophy of leadership explains why a loss with 100 percent effort didn’t bother him and a win with a 65 percent effort did. It was this conscious definition and execution of a philosophy of success and leadership that allowed him to transcend his peers, and we can take our cue from him: leaders that transcend their peers are those who define and refine their leadership philosophy and then apply it systematically and consistently. They don’t succumb to the bumper-sticker mentality of the latest leadership slogan.

Great leadership is about principle, not technique. Technique is useful, but without principle, technique becomes manipulation. Great leaders operate from a clear set of principles and convictions, and they work hard at uncovering them to shape a leadership philosophy that gives coherence to their leadership style. For John Wooden, this was no mere academic exercise: it was at the very heart of his effectiveness and greatness as a coach and as a leader. In the same way, we as leaders need a framework to think well about leadership. We discover that greatness cannot be achieved without character and cannot be sustained without competence.

By starting with his philosophy of leadership, John Wooden would have garnered the praise of Plato, who long ago argued that “the philosophers must become kings in our cities, or those who are now kings and potentates must learn to seek wisdom like true philosophers—and so political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one.” Without leaders becoming thinkers, he warned, “there can be no rest from the troubles for the cities, and I think for the whole human race.”… at the very least, for the marketplace in the twenty-first century.