The Wooden Way

Photo Caption: John Wooden speaks at UCLA in 2003, at a ceremony honoring him and his late wife, Nell. Earlier this year, the university’s Anderson School of Management established the John Wooden Global Leadership Award.

“Mentors are available at all stages of your leadership life –
early, middle and late. Seek them out and listen;
absorb their knowledge and use it.”

– John R. Wooden, Head Basketball Coach, Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles

When John Robert Wooden speaks, everyone listens – not only because he is considered the greatest college basketball coach of all time, but because his legacy as a leader extends far beyond the basketball court. Aside from having guided his University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) teams to an unprecedented 10 U.S. national championships, Wooden is a highly principled man and a master motivator who offers invaluable insights about people and how they can best work together.

Recently, I interviewed the 97-year old marvel on the topic of leadership. Coach Wooden shared his wisdom on team building, conflict resolution, giving credit, dealing with adversity and pursuing excellence. His teachings are directly applicable to Toastmasters everywhere, be they officers or future officers. 

Leading and Motivating Teams
The Toastmaster magazine: How can our leaders motivate people to do good work, and how can they motivate teams of people to work together toward a common goal?

John Wooden: In my opinion, one of the greatest motivating tools we have is a pat on the back. It doesn’t have to be a physical pat – it could be a smile, a nod. Everyone likes to be complimented in one way or another.

Another technique is listening. A leader must listen to those under their supervision. I believe that has been overlooked a lot. We don’t know a thing that we haven’t learned from somebody else in one way or another. And one of the ways we do that is by listening.

Tips for New Leaders
TM: Many Toastmasters members step, or are thrust, into leadership positions for the first time. Do you have tips on how they can build a cohesive team?

JW: Again, the first thing is listening. Get ideas from them. Lead, don’t drive. And give credit. Don’t blame. If an officer on your team suggested something and it worked well, give them credit. If it doesn’t work well, you take the blame because you made the decision. Lastly, criticism must always be given in a gentle way, never harshly.

[As a coach] I had three rules, as I progressed through the years, for my teams:

  1. Never be late. Always be on time. It’s very important. Whether to practice, to the table, to the bus, to your classes.
  2. You must never criticize a teammate. That’s the leader’s job. It’s never your job.
  3. I would not tolerate profanity from anyone, anytime. I’d blow the whistle, pull you from the court, put you on the bench and talk to you before I would put you back in.

The Pursuit of Excellence
TM: Each year our districts strive to achieve and/or maintain levels of excellence. You coached for 16 years at UCLA before you won your first national championship. Which was harder: climbing the mountain to win your first national championship, or maintaining that level of excellence in subsequent years when you were the recognized king of the hill and expectations rose?

JW: I think it’s far more difficult to get to the top. You learn so much along the way, not only with working with other people, but other little things that can help you.

TM: As someone who has won at every level and set records that likely will never be broken, what is your definition of success?

JW: Too many people look at outscoring someone as winning. I never tried to get that across to my players. My bench never heard me mention winning. My whole emphasis was for each one of my players to try to learn to execute the fundamentals to the best of their ability. Not to try to be better than somebody else, but to learn from others, and never cease trying to be the best they could be; that’s what I emphasized more than anything else. 

Pyramid of Success
TM: Your Pyramid of Success is an inspiration to men and women around the world. How did you develop your model of excellence?

JW: When I was an English teacher, I found out some parents made their youngsters feel they had failed if they didn’t get an A or a B. I never liked that way to judge. Nor do I like Mr. Webster’s definition of success, which is more or less the accumulation of material possessions or the achievement of a position of power or prestige. I don’t question the accomplishments, but I don’t think they necessarily indicate success.

I wanted to come up with something that I hoped would make me a better teacher, and give those under my supervision something with which to aspire, other than just higher marks in the classroom or more points in athletic endeavors.

I coined my own definition of success. I used what my father said: “Never try to be better than someone else. Learn from others.” I ran across a simple verse at that time that said:

“At God’s footstool to confess, a poor soul knelt and bowed his head. ‘I failed’ he cried. The master said, ‘Though didst thy best. That is success.’”

From those lines I coined my own definition of success in 1934: “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

After a while I wasn’t happy with this definition. My youngsters didn’t seem to understand it very well. I felt I needed to come up with something you could see. So I started the Pyramid of Success, started it in 1934, completed it in 1948 when I was teaching at Indiana State University after being discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1946.

Any structure must have a strong foundation; the cornerstones anchor the foundation. For some reason the cornerstones that I chose to begin [the Pyramid] with I never changed. I had a lot of ideas during those years. Changed some, dropped some, substituted something else, and other names could be used, but never changed the cornerstones.

I think anyone’s success depends on working hard – industriousness and enthusiasm, enjoying what you are doing. You can’t work your best if you’re not enjoying what you are doing. Those were the first two [cornerstones].

And gradually I built the rest of the blocks. Between the cornerstones I had friendship, loyalty and cooperation. Then I went up to self-control, alertness, initiative and intentness. Then I went up to condition, skill and team spirit. And those led up to poise and confidence. And it all went up to competitive greatness.

And then with patience and faith you can get to the top of the pyramid, which is my definition of success.

On Resolving Conflict
TM: What advice do you have in regards to resolving team conflict?

JW: Certainly conflict will arise. I think you have to get both parties together and air everything out without trying to hold back anything – not be critical of either one, just try to listen to both sides and find out what might be the trouble. And sometimes you’ll find out it wasn’t too much at all. And it can be worked out without too much of a problem. Unless a problem is brought to the forefront, it will just continue to fester. 

Cultivating Leadership in Others
TM: What advice can you give today’s leaders about cultivating leadership in others?

JW: Make certain that you give those under your supervision credit. Make sure that they receive…very little criticism, but when there has to be some criticism, it must be done in a gentle way that will not be embarrassing, and definitely not in front of others. You may need to take them aside and talk it over, but never do so while you’re mad. No yelling; it has to be done in a gentle fashion, and with a pat on the back is the best. 

On Struggle and Difficulty
TM: Any advice for leaders facing adversity or struggle of some kind on their teams or in their clubs?

JW: Hardship brings people closer together if you share it. When I first came to UCLA, we had to have basketball practice for the first 17 years on the 3rd floor of the old gym, with the gymnastics team on one side and the wrestling squad on another most of the time. I grew closer to those two coaches than the others because we shared adversity. It was tough for us all.

Club Presidents: Listen and Lead with Love
TM: What advice can you provide our thousands of club presidents – essentially the team captains – around the world, in terms of leading their squads of officers and members?

JW: I wanted mine to have a definite part. Your officers should never be afraid to make a suggestion, but they should never be upset if the leader does not accept it.

I also wanted my basketball players to know that I really cared about them. Forget basketball; as a person, I cared. I cared about their family. I want to know each day: How’s your mother? Did the job work out for your dad? Did your brother or sister get that position?

I think any leader should do this. You should really care. If you are fooling them, they will catch on. 

On Patience
TM: What else would you like Toastmasters leaders to know in order to succeed?

JW: At the top of my pyramid: patience and faith! Leaders must have patience for those under their supervision. Don’t expect too much too soon. Maybe it was easy for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for somebody else. Be sure you have patience.

And then, you must believe in what you’re doing, that what you’re doing is the proper thing, the right thing. And you must have faith that things will end up as they should, which doesn’t mean as you want them to, but things will work out as they should. Providing, of course, that you do the things that you should do to help it become that reality.

I think we are all guilty at times of wanting things to happen a certain way but not doing everything we are capable of to help that become a reality. We just want it to. And that’s not life. That shouldn’t be life.

Past District Governor Craig Harrison, DTM, is a member of Lakeview Toastmasters in Oakland, California. A former high school basketball coach, he is the author of Cultivating the Leader in You and runs the training firm Expressions of Excellence!™ Reach him at