John Wooden on Leadership

Leadership Excellence with John Wooden

An excerpt from our Executive Book Summary of The 5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell:

Portrait of a Level 5 Leader: Coach John Wooden

The 5 Levels of Leadership
The 5 Levels of Leadership

My admiration and respect for John Wooden began when I was just a kid. You see, basketball was my first love. I’ll never forget the day in fourth grade when I attended a high school varsity basketball game. It enthralled me. For the next dozen years, I played basketball just about every day. And because I was a great fan of the game, I knew about Wooden. How could I not! During his tenure with the UCLA Bruins, Wooden won 620 games in 27 seasons. His teams won 10 NCAA titles during his last 12 seasons, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. At one point, his teams had a record winning streak of 88 consecutive games. They had four perfect 30-0 seasons. They also won 38 straight games in NCAA tournaments and a record 98 straight home-game wins at Pauley Pavilion. Wooden was named NCAA College Basketball’s Coach of the Year in 1964, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973.

I was fortunate to get the chance to meet John Wooden. I was even more fortunate that for the next seven years I had the privilege of meeting with him several more times and continuing to learn from him – for while he had made a great impression on me from afar, he made an even stronger one up close.

In fact, when I teach the 5 Levels of Leadership and I am asked to give an example of a Level 5 leader, Wooden is the person I most often talk about, because I think that by studying his life anyone can learn great leadership lessons. Here’s how his life exemplified the 5 Levels of Leadership.

Level 1: Position – People Follow You Because They Have To. Wooden coached basketball for 30 years. Like all leaders, he started by receiving a leadership position and got the opportunity to make the most of it. Coach Wooden used his position when needed, though he did it with a soft touch. For example, his practices were not long, but he demanded the full attention of every player each time they practiced. If a player lost focus and slacked off, Wooden would kick him out of practice.

Level 2: Permission – People Follow You Because They Want To. Throughout his long career, Coach Wooden’s relationships with all of his players were special. And after his career as a coach was completed, Wooden maintained his close ties to the men he had once led on the court. More than once he told me, ‘If, as a leader, you listen to them, then they’ll listen to you.’ He understood that leaders listen, learn and then they lead.

Level 3: Production – People Follow You Because of What You Have Done for the Organization. Coach Wooden turned around UCLA’s basketball program in one season. Prior to his arrival, they had experienced a losing season. His first year as UCLA’s coach, the team won the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) Southern Division Championship with a 22-7 record. It was the most wins in a season for UCLA since their basketball program had begun in 1919.

Level 4: People Development – People Follow You Because of What You Have Done for Them. Coach Wooden said, ‘Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.’ That’s what Level 4 leaders want for themselves and those they lead: to reach their potential.

Level 5: Pinnacle – People Follow You Because of Who You Are and What You Represent. Many times people don’t find out how wonderful a leader was until he or she dies. They go to the funeral or memorial service and they are surprised to discover how many other lives were impacted by the person. In the case of Coach Wooden, we didn’t have to wait to find out. Players from four decades of teams had received the benefit of his leadership, and so did the people they have led after their days on the court. And millions more had watched from afar as he led teams to victory. He was wise, honest, principled, disciplined, humble, humorous, courageous and faithful. He was a Level 5 leader. The world needs more like him.

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