If there was ever a man who codified and successfully taught leadership to young men, it was John Wooden.
I’ve met plenty of renowned leaders at this point in my life including multiple heads of state, military masterminds, civil rights activists, billionaire CEOs, and even a certain British royal couple; but none of them made a bigger impression on me than longtime UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden.
He was 99 years old when I met him briefly before a moderated speech, and he made more contact with me in a handshake than most do in hours of conversation. I didn’t know much about him other than the quick Google search: his teams were unbeatable for more than a decade. Literally, they won 88 consecutive games, 7 consecutive national championships, and totaled 10 national championships in 12 years. He coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, and was well known to be “colorblind” in a time when this concept was still shamefully underrepresented.
But the night I met him, I learned that Coach Wooden was not simply a great basketball coach… he was a great life coach. He built the Pyramid of Success as a model for his young men to follow. He made short inspirational pep talks that were more about success in life than between the lines. If there was ever a man who codified and successfully taught leadership to young men, it was John Wooden.
He was asked about his first day of practice every season, what would he do? He replied that he made everyone take off their shoes so he could teach them to put on their socks and shoes correctly. The audience laughed when the moderator asked for a volunteer to illustrate. A young man braved the stage, and Coach Wooden politely showed us that the young man had indeed put on his socks incorrectly. He pointed to the wrinkles and told him how fundamental it was to take care of his feet. If you’re going to play with greatness, you have to start with the little things. Little details are vital. Little things make big things happen, he said.
This small lesson struck me. You’re the greatest coach, maybe ever, and you start each team off with a lesson about the fundamentals of life. What would it feel like to have a leader like this at work, or at the gym, or in the community? I’ve tried to start paying attention to the small things as a result, because maybe I’m supposed to be that leader in all of those places.
I met the man once, briefly, and now every time I put on my shoes – so, everyday – I think about this lesson and I try to be a little bit better during my daily routine. Now that’s leadership. Thanks Coach.
More John Wooden quotes here.
Photo from Flickr/TheNext28Days