Wooden’s On Leadership

Wooden’s philosophy and approach to leading both in basketball and life has caused me to pause in my own approach and take stock in how I lead others.  At first, I didn’t think that I would enjoy the text that much simply because I’ve never been that interested in sports unless I’m playing them and that happens rarely (classical singing is athletic enough as is raising two girls under six).  After reading, however, I’d gladly recommend it to any leader or potential leader I know.  To be honest, I felt that just the materials regarding the pyramid of success were “good enough” in my mind for a book, but they certainly weren’t good enough for Wooden which is both an illustration of how committed a leader Wooden was and how thorough a resource this text is.  To me, while Wooden’s foundation is strong, I also believe that trust is essential at that base level in an organization.  I would also add healthy conflict with intent and purpose (strive for what Lincoln achieved in his cabinet), accountability and a results focus to the pyramid in addition to what Wooden highlights.

The Pyramids or Success

While I note above some additional areas that I would add to the bottom layer of the pyramid in an organization, I think that Wooden is spot on with the other components of his foundation.

  • Industriousness: In my own career I’ve many time seen not only the impact of hard work on the organization but also on the individual.  While the entire pyramid results in competitive greatness, this is one of the hardest to realize not because it is difficult to work hard, but because of the difficulty around working in balance, a concept still evolving in my own mind.  Wooden later in the book speaks of how he only has a total of 2 hours a day through the course of the season – that seems more reasonable “long-term” (i.e. only over four years) than the 5 – 6 days a week we’re now working, 10 – 15 hours a day.  When you are working, yes you have to work hard, however as a leader you also have to set the right pace and tone for your organization and remind people to find balance when work pulls it out of whack or to be intentional in how you balance so it is net in balance.
  • Friendship:  I find that I treat friends at work similar to how I treat friends in the rest of my life as many of us do, and while the foundation (mutual respect, esteem, and camaraderie) do create essential “infrastructure,” the tendency is to reveal too much, be too casual or informal in work.  There may be a coworker or two with whom you long-term develop that relationship, but the reality is that if you lead or intend to lead an organization, there is a degree of distance that must be built into your friendships.
  • Loyalty:  Loyalty to yourself in this day and age is something that seems the inverse of what organizations demand.  By that I mean that companies today tend to want you to be assimilated into their culture and to be loyal first to the company and then to all other parts of your life.  I agree with Wooden that first you must be loyal to yourself – not selfish, but loyal to the standards and ideals in which you believe.  In looking for an organization to work in or lead, the first thing one should do is evaluate the mission, vision and values of the organization to see if they align with your own.  If leading an organization, the hard call to make is if and more likely when to change those fundamental aspects so that either they are in alignment with your leadership or you are in alignment with them.
  • Cooperation:  This is the area of the foundation that I think tells more of one’s leadership potential and capacity than any other – many times, people who are viewed as “leaders” are simply strong individuals with a unique vision but lack the ability to hear the voices of others.  To this end, a leader needs to be able to not only actively listen what others are saying when possible (and it should most often be possible), but also encourage healthy conflict and debate within his or her organization so as to make sure every voice is heard.  The concern needs to be, as Wooden puts it, for what’s right, not who’s right.
  • Enthusiasm:  Enthusiasm in my view is one of the key defining differences between a job and a career or avocation.  When you do something because you have to it’s an onerous task.  When you do something because you are passionate about it, engaged, involved and committed, it becomes not only an inspiration to yourself but others as well.


The Pyramid’s Second Tier

  • Self-control: One key to lead a team with consistency is through self-control, but not just in the way you interact work with others, but in every aspect of your life.  I’ve observed that strong leaders lead by example, and part of that example is by how they treat their physical self.  While it is augmented in Colorado because of how outdoors and health focused the populace is, wherever I go and interact with other leaders, the majority of people are very fit – it’s simply a part of their nature.
  •  Alertness: While good to strive for, I think that we have to be careful on how hard we push for alertness, at least in the context of how Wooden describes it.  I definitely agree that observing, absorbing and learning from the world around you is a critical component of a leader or team’s make up, pushing yourself to an extreme in this area can be harmful given that in a sense it could result in a degree of sensory overload – best to build up this competency over time.  In a sense, I equate the risk here with being a performer who is “on” all the time or an extrovert who is never allowed to have any down time – just like any muscle, ability and strength has to be added incrementally over time.
  • Initiative: To me, this is also known as failing fast – in essence, lean forward, get things done so that in the end if we are going to fail, we fail faster so that we can learn from the experience and move on to the next possibility.  As Wooden notes, a strong leader can’t be afraid of mistakes nor can he or she be hesitant, indecisive or vacillate.  An approach of failing fast makes sure that when we make mistakes, we make mistakes of commission, not omission
  • Intentness: Acting with determination and purpose is core to any leader and organization.  If you look at what Patrick Lencioni with The Table Group has written with regards to the need for every employee to identify how what they do is relevant and has an impact, taking it to the next level speaks to intentness.  Once you figure out what makes you relevant in your organization, you can then act with intent in whatever you do.  For me personally, this means continuing to refine what I excel at and making a conscious choice of that which I am not only going to focus on but also those areas where I am going to push/force growth within myself.

The Heart of the Pyramid

  • Condition: Physical conditioning is an essential aspect of being a leader, but conditioning also applies to mental and moral strength but also emotional and relational conditioning.  This is perhaps one of the hardest components of the pyramid to master simply because of the commitment and intent it takes to accomplish, especially with the personal histories that are in conflict with these very requirements of a leader.
  • Skill:  The individual and the team need to be well-rounded and know and be able to execute on all facets of their job, not just one that they excel at.  I know many developers who are great at hacking together code but create code that is very buggy.  Because they are able to create solutions to complex problems, we frequently ignore that the code often takes many hours after the initial development phase to work out all of the bugs, which typically falls on the shoulders of another member of the team (to clean up the mess) after the “hero of the moment” goes off and works on the next shiny problem.  To truly excel, however, that individual should be looking at their own code and not only cleaning up after the fact but learning to balance the skill set so that while they may be great at one thing, they are good at all things required of their job and if they aren’t, they push themselves to get there.  For leaders this means continuous learning and improvement, with a desire to identify all of the blind spots within their personality and fill them in and then communicates and enacts it throughout their organization, including putting the mechanisms in place to enable and ensure this is the case.
  • Team Spirit:  There are many cheesy sayings around this point, my favorite being “there is no I in team … but there is meat.”  That said, and as much as our current organizational culture may ridicule and push back on this concept given how our society is now driving the individual over the organization, it is still a fundamental truth.  Teamwork is critical and essential to any organization, but what does it mean?  It is an eagerness to sacrifice personal interest for the glory of all (a different intent than willingness) and to that end the individual must be enthusiastic in their desire to put the needs of the organization ahead of their own personal agenda.  The crazy part of this sacrifice is that when you have a group of individuals who truly function as a team, they realize personal success as the team or organization is successful, and many times are viewed as “mystical” given their working methods and what they are able to accomplish.  People try to make their success be based on something very complex or some unknown or some political connection but in the end it comes down to the simple act of self-sacrifice and commitment to the team with an eagerness and joy in the approach.


Getting to the Top

  • Poise: I really appreciate how Wooden has ordered the layers of the pyramid because not only are the lower layers essential for the upper ones, they also lead to competence and enable those layers above them.  Case in point is poise.  If you excel at the base and middle tiers of the pyramid, poise becomes a simple trait to embody.  Without them, and without the maturity that they bring about, it is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve and maintain.  The ability to be true to oneself and not get thrown off is a tough one in today’s business climate because of how often organizations and industries change.  No one thought five years ago that Apple would be the most valuable company on the planet, nor that the iPhone would be such a disruptor of the technology sector (especially given the abject failure of Apple’s previous forays into the area, the Newton and the Rokr).  That, however, is a testament to the volatility of capitalism and how quickly industry to turn to a different direction.  Having the wherewithal to be true to yourself when all others are blaming or scapegoating you in bad situations and worse.  Poise is, as so aptly stated, being able to meet with both triumph and disaster and treating both the same.  The outside world doesn’t throw you, doesn’t cause you to second guess or question your own choices nor get panicked when the unexpected happens.
  • Confidence: Confidence, to me, is quiet and quieting (just as poise).  It is a belief in yourself that is unassailable, however at the same time it can’t be false or out of place.  Confidence builds on a constant need for growth and learning, being intent, taking initiative, being alert and other parts of the pyramid.  However, the risk we run is one of false or fake confidence or arrogance.  That is what makes confidence quiet and quieting – the individual who has to proclaim to the world what they know isn’t confident but arrogant and the individual who puts on airs of false confidence isn’t a leader but is a fool.
  • Competitive greatness:  “A real love for the hard battle, knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required.”  What more does one need to say than that?

Good Values Attract Good People

This point is where leading by example comes to the front – if you don’t lead by setting the example of the values you desire and tolerate values that you don’t, you simply won’t attract the talent that will unify your organization and help you realize success long term.  Values always have to come first, and with good reason.  Without the right value system at the core of an organization, hardcore resisters are bred, born and hired and a culture of blame evolves.  Accountability isn’t reasonable if you don’t have good values at the core of your business and they must come first.  Character is innate, rarely something that you can coach or help an individual to adjust, adapt or realize and it starts with the little things, the attention to small details and one should never value the one who will do anything to win, at any cost.  However a part of good character in a leader is realizing that sometimes people simply make mistakes – the tough call is determining if it was truly a mistake or a part of character. 


Use the Most Powerful Four-Letter Word

It’s refreshing to see a leadership system that not only views itself as a variation on parenting but also at its core has is based on love.  Having love in your heart for all people in your life and in your organization radically shifts your outlook and approach with those individuals.  It also impacts how they perceive you as approaching someone with an attitude of agape love is something that anyone can perceive and will find hard to resist.  However, even though Christ loved all of those around him and treated them as such, he still asked hard questions and had great expectations for all people.  Part in how you get your employees to engage is by knowing them, by making them feel valued through your intention and how interact with them.  At a certain point, however, an organization will grow too large to feasibly know every employee that works for you and while you still strive for this ideal, approaching people from a position of love results in a completely different experience than any other.  This doesn’t mean, however, that you like everyone with which you work or don’t hold people accountable, nor that you are any less demanding in your expectations – it has to do with the quality of your relationships with the people around you.  However, even with this love and the charity in your heart that comes with it, there is a need to keep yourself apart from your team and employees.  This doesn’t mean being aloof or doing it for its own sake, but in essence is for the sake of objectivity.  With all of this, you have to know when it is time to be flexible and when it is time to be firm – never be flexible on those rules or expectations that speak to your core values or philosophy, but remain soft hearted in everything else.

Call Yourself a Teacher

There’s a great quote out there from the CEO of a local company who, when asked why he doesn’t have his title on his business card he replies with “because every day this job is different and the title doesn’t matter – today, I’m the janitor” or something along those lines.  I think that many times we can get caught up in titles and status that is conveyed by them.  That, however is just a part of Wooden’s intent in in calling yourself a teacher and not really an explicit one at that – in fact he states that you should put teacher on your business card.  His view is that you should first and foremost always view and call yourself (at least internally) a teacher.  But why?

Viewing yourself as a teacher shifts your approach and view of the world and those around you drastically.  Not only do you attempt to perceive more and find six different way to explain a concept or hold a conversation, but also how to enable those under you to perform at their very best – not THE best, but THEIR best.  In that process, you must also know how to teach and be teachable.  Part of teaching, however, is patience, which for many is a talent that must be developed and learn to differentiate between simply telling someone how to do something and teaching them how to do it.  You also have to get used to wearing many different hats through the course of the day and be able to move adeptly between them.  Don’t fall into the trap of presuming that your professional competency equates to an ability to teach, nor into the belief that your answers are always right as that will lead you to stop asking questions.  Back to the poem I quoted in class, I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day, I’d rather one would walk with me than merely show the way.  The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear, fine counsel is confusing but example is always clear.

Emotion is Your Enemy

There is a clear difference between emotionalism and intensity – intensity leads to consistency whereas emotionalism derails it.  When you let emotion take over the conversation or interaction, even if for show (which calls into question honesty) or an intentional purpose, it not only takes the focus away from the content of the situation but calls into question your maturity as a leader and derails your (and others) ability to do your best.  Emotionalism also throws a leader off track in having consistently maximum performance – having intensity with emotional discipline, on the contrary, allows you to stay on track and on target, allowing you to bring intense calmness and reason to any situation.

It Takes Ten Hands to Score a Basket

Ten hands to score a basket is about understanding the big picture and realizing that when the team wins, you win … and the team winning can lead to you winning much bigger than you ever could on your own.  You continue to push the team to grow by sharing information, ideas and more across the board.  This also means to recognize the players who don’t have their hands on the ball during the game and the members of the team who never even touch the ball.  In other words, recognize the assist as at least as valuable to the success as the hero of the moment.  In fact, if you’ve built a team based on a value set that vectors towards this, the people on your team who are the “star performers” likely will be of a character where they would rather see those given the assist recognized in public while you make the time to congratulate and validate them in private (because positive validation is part and parcel of “good parenting”).

Little Things Make Big Things Happen

Focusing and perfecting the details are critical to seeing broader success.  In part this is because it allows you to enjoy small successes upon which you can build, but also it keeps the trivial from derailing your success.  We frequently set the big, hairy audacious goals (as we should) without a clear path on how we get there, or what the intermediate steps are.  Other times, we continuously shift our focus on the newest bright, shiny object to hover in our periphery.  The reality is that while you need to set those distant goals, by focusing your attention and intent on the trivial or smaller steps, it will both lead you to those goals and allow you incremental successes to track and leverage to motivate your team.  It’s certainly not about being a perfectionist, but about doing your best in any given moment while not allowing the quest for perfection to pull you out of balance.  In the end, it is the accumulation of many different little things that get you from here to there – focusing on those will help you organization get from point A to point B no matter what shrapnel may be flying from the sides. 

Make Each Day Your Masterpiece

Time management is a constant struggle for any leader and one which I’ve faced personally and am currently coaching another leader on to help resolve the lack of balance in his schedule.  The catch, however, is that time is something that is completely in your control and one just has to learn to not only get the most value out of every minute in a given day but also make sure your day doesn’t dissolve into nothing being accomplished because you’ve committed to too many things.  Along with that, while a failure to prepare destines for failure, you always have to remember that there is only so much of you that you can give before you burn out and at the same time can’t make up for a lack of effort today by giving more effort tomorrow.  An effective (although tedious) way to gain control back over your schedule is to divide your week out by a percent of time to spend spread across the total hours you typically work.  This does two things: it sets stated limits to the number of hours you work in a week and how many hours you can spend working on any given thing.  Then you have to have the discipline to punt things to the next week or to someone else when they don’t fit into that structure.

The Carrot is Mightier than the Stick

This, more than any other portion of the book, is one that I want to incorporate immediately into my parenting at home.  I frequently find myself both limiting options and using a stick more often than a carrot – in part because the carrot my daughter prefers is more like carrot cake – we’ve gotten into a habit where rewards are equated with food and not necessarily food that is healthy.  I’ve in the past tried to “establish boundaries” for my oldest daughter as so much of the literature calls for and yet the idea of making firm suggestions is much more appealing because it then gives you flexibility and also empowers your child to make their own decisions while you teach them through discussion and allow them to fail from time to time.  At work, this is equally as applicable, and we should leverage rewards systems that make sense versus ones that are arbitrary or not aligned with the effort or focus.

As a leader, you also have to vary wary of how you use both criticism and praise – you don’t want hollow praise to be part of your vocabulary, or praise for praise sake and you want to make sure that if all possible you criticize in private and at all times attempt to be positive in your criticism.  How is that accomplished?  By using a positive performance by an individual or a team and relating that praise to an area that needs improvement.  There’s also a theory in performance management that states that you should have people work on the things they excel at and reassign the things they don’t to people who are passionate about them, therefore setting them up for success.  While I see the intent behind that and to some degree agree with it, I believe it has more to do with the role they excel at, not the specific items of work.  If someone is better with tactical planning and action, don’t stick them with strategic unless they desire to grow in that area.  I also believe that only the leader should give criticism.  Too often you see colleagues who are either trying to be helpful or spiteful who tear others down without a plan or the authority to create one on how to build them back up.  Leaders don’t tear down (except in specific circumstances like hardcore resisters) and all of the criticism they offer is both aligned with the organization’s needs and the individual or teams ability.

Make Greatness Attainable by all

Making greatness attainable by all means that you identify what greatness is in every role and then enable each individual to attain it for their specific role, in the end creating a “great” organization through empowering individuals to be their best.  That, however, is the measure – doing the job to your very best, and then sticking to that being what is best in that moment for that individual.  You have to instill the belief that there is an opportunity for greatness in any and every job.  Greatness can be a supporting role, as noted before – it doesn’t mean that you are the star or the hero.  As the leader, you have to encourage ambition and make it clear that any advancement is dependent on the mastery of current roles and assignments.

Seek Significant Change

As a leader, you need to look for the excuses that are keeping you from success; doing so may be incredibly challenging as those excuses at times can be so ingrained you won’t realize them for what they are.  To that end, look for yes men who will say no; individuals who are there for the success of the organization but are willing to ask hard questions when they need to be asked.  This doesn’t mean asking questions for the sake of questioning, but to make sure that nothing is left unexamined.  Encourage a culture that doesn’t say no but
instead asks how.  As a leader, you have to be an excellent active listener to both empower the culture and make sure you fully understand the points and positions of those around you.  Most people think that by its very nature that conflict is negative, but in reality conflict can be positive, as long as it doesn’t get personal and isn’t for the sake of being a contrarian.  In all of that, be wary of being satisfied with the work delivered, for satisfaction can lead to failure.

Don’t Look at the Scoreboard

Once goals are set, focus on the near term steps that it takes to achieve them.  Forget about the future – the future and the bright and shiny can make you lose your focus on what lies right in front of you.  As you work against those incremental steps you must also hold your competitors with the respect that should be accorded to them.  To do otherwise leave you vulnerable.

Adversity is Your Asset

When I was living in Kitty Hawk, NC after I graduated from college and had my first “real” job (as a real estate agent), I faced a lot of financial adversity and had no support whatsoever – that adversity was due to irresponsible decisions that I (and many others) had made in college around credit cards and debt.  Even in the face of that, however I always believed that God wouldn’t put any challenge in from of me that I wasn’t strong enough to conquer – I viewed it all as a test and as a challenge for me to overcome.  And overcome is exactly what I did, taking the lessons I could learn away from it and carrying them with to today.  In that vein, while fate may throw a wrench in our lives from time to time, we can’t control that – we can’t control others or what may happen in the world as we can only control ourselves.  How do we control ourselves, though?  We can control how we react to those situations and respond to it; if we can’t we can push ourselves to grow in that area and build that skillset.  You have to live with the circumstances dealt and make the best of them.  At the same time, never give your word unless you intend to keep it, as not only are you as good as your word, by setting expectations and committing to actions you can’t realize, you are setting yourself up for a swift kick in the pants by fate.  Failure, though, is never the fault of fate – it is the individual leader who determines how to deal with adversity and whether to view it with the right attitude and spirit and turn that adversity into advantage and success.

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