Letters to my child. Leadership, Business and Kaizen.

John Wooden: The Wizard of Westwood

Last Day of High School

High School – Last Day

I grew up with a Michael Jordan poster hanging on my bedroom wall. Before moving to Canada I gave that poster to my school coordinator, Hudson Ventura Teixeira. He was my first mentor.

Most of our talks were rooted in our love for the game of basketball.  Back then my signature move was the superman dive. Much later in life I was happy to hear Larry Bird say, “that’s what basketball is all about.”

For the record, years in Judo taught me how to fall and not hurt myself so I didn’t do it because I was crazy. It was actually a very rational approach. Getting possession of the ball was not the reason I did it. By putting myself at risk of pain and injury, I showed to my team that I was passionate about winning.

I was the point guard so I already led by position (Level 1). Showing that I really cared allowed me to lead by permission (Level 2).

I used to dive and hustle all the time. During practice, at the park, at home or in tournaments… to me basketball was a mental game. It is about who wants it more and how far are you willing to go to get the win.

Fast forward 17 years and I was once again surprised to learn that none other than John Wooden shared that exact same view of basketball. Wooden was nicknamed “The Indiana Rubber Man” for his suicidal dives on the court.

Here are seven characteristics that made him a great leader in my opinion:

Brilliant minds think alike. To be great, you have to hustle.

While your team mates are taking the elevator, you are climbing the stairs… while your co-workers are watching the clock, you are already working on assignments for the next day… while other players on the basketball court are worried about their longevity in the sport, you are giving all you have to be the best you can be.

While ordinary people are living ordinary lives, you dare to dream big.

Why did he hustle? There is no evidence of what I am about to say but it resonates with me. I firmly believe that John Wooden hated losing more than he liked winning. As far as I know he never said it out loud but one of his rituals (more on that later) was to make his players treat victory and defeat the same way in the locker room.

When you are a top performer… you give your best. When you are at the peak of your game and willing to sacrifice all you have for the moment, victory is a foregone conclusion. It is expected.

I also believe that facing and overcoming adversity is crucial in the path to greatness. Forget the fact that he grew up in a small house in Indiana without plumbing and electricity. John Wooden’s early exposure to basketball had a much bigger problem: John was born in October.

How does that factor in? If you look at professional athletes, over 75% of them were born in the first half of the year. Statistically, shouldn’t that number be close to 50%? A very likely explanation relates to the multiplier effect explained in Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated“.

Kids grow up fast. Children born in the beginning of the year are a little bigger and a little stronger than those born later in the year. That small advantage has a multiplier effect on deliberate practice and talent development. It is something that all kids born in the second half of the year have to overcome.

I know. I was born on October 23rd. John Wooden was born on October 14th.

In a recent podcast episode of Lewis Howes School of Greatness, NY Times best selling author Don Yaeger describes one of his sessions with his mentor, John Wooden. The key to success is having a strong inner circle. According to Wooden, “you will never outperform your inner circle.”

In one of the classes I am taking, the instructor turned to the classroom and asked, “How many of you are top performers?” Pretty much everyone raised their hands. I don’t think my classroom is full of liars… but like everything in life, it is relative. It is quite easy to be the top performer at work when you may be the only one in your group/department taking University classes at night.

However, in the grander scheme… in the context of a classroom full of students, there can be only one top performer. An accurate answer to that question would be, “Only one of us.”

Therein lies Wooden’s view. You must surround yourself with people outside work that will continue to challenge and raise your standards. As a pre requisite to achieving greatness you need a group of highly effective, extremely talented individuals that will hold you to the highest standards and engage you intellectually.

Not everyone is blessed with an existing inner circle of such highly touted individuals… and to some, ‘ditching your current friends” can be a very cold hearted alternative. Mastermind groups are a good alternative and it is not necessarily time consuming.

My childhood friends are spread around the world. I chat with them using a free app called WhatsApp. Yesterday I asked them all to complete MBTI assessments and copy/comment in the chat window. We had a nice thought provoking discussion and some even submitted their results from their significant others one day later.

The inner circle: me and Doctor Crepusculo

The inner circle: me and Doctor Crepusculo

Like several leaders, John Wooden had several rituals. I particularly like his pre game ritual where he spits on the floor, rubs his hand, touches his assistant coach on the leg and signals hello to his wife in the stands. I do not think it is a superstition, as much as an exercise in visualization.

I have a ritual that helps me keep my life goal in focus. I visit my local bookstore every weekend, to walk around and visualize having a science fiction book on the shelves one day. I also have rituals before I give speeches on presentations and one for when I get home from work.

At all times Coach Wooden carried a piece of paper that says the following:

“Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books – especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.”

Anyone that has heard John Wooden speak knows he had excellent memory. He carries the paper because he believes it is important to walk around with a true statement of his purpose in life.

Before I got married I had a picture of my wife in my wallet taken on the day we met in a Kendo Tournament in Detroit. Nowadays I carry a note to remind me of my purpose in life. As strange as it may sound, reading it sometimes reminds me of an important part of the note: “be kind and generous to my wife”

The seventh trait that makes John Wooden great is in my opinion the most important. There is no doubt that he is what Maxwell calls a level 5 leader. However, his superb mastery of level 4 also sets him apart: People Development.

The most celebrated coach in NCAA Basketball history wanted to be remembered as a teacher and not a coach. His focus and lifetime commitment to the development of his students is evident in this video:

This is also where the average bosses will fail. The majority of people would rather do a certain task themselves than to teach someone else how to do it… they think they can do better, but that is extremely short sighted. They do not spend enough effort on talent development because it is time consuming and quite often frustrating.

People Development is a key element in true leadership. Teaching other people take effort, hustling takes effort and creating or joining a Mastermind group takes time. It is something most companies understand as a necessity, but how many “competent” managers really know how?

Most people are trapped in the Matrix:

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 1.09.16 PM

How do you make people better? You cater to their strengths and provide feedback on their weaknesses.

It is interesting to note an aberration in the stats gathered during the reign of the Wizard of Westwood in UCLA. His players had a higher shooting percentage than during their High School years. Anyone that understands basketball can see why that is an anomaly: higher level of competition, taller players, more pressure and tighter defence.

His approach was simple. He observed where his players had their highest shooting percentage and instructed them to try and only shoot the ball from their “spots”. In other words, he modified plays to maximize output based on his players and their individual preferences and strengths.

In the context of the MBTI and Self Assessment tools… a good leader will take the time to observe, measure and analyze results, making adjustments so that the outcome of the team is maximized.

Moreover, at the very heart of the issue, here is why I think most leaders fail to make the leap from good to great: unwillingness to self-sacrifice.

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." - Spock

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” – Spock in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

A lot can be said about self sacrifice when it comes to the effort you put forward, specially when it comes to leading by example. Larry Bird diving for the ball even late in his career when he had back problems is a fine example of self-sacrifice. Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games in major league baseball is also awe-inspiring.

Try and grasp the enormity of that number. He played for the Yankees when he was sick, when he was tired, on the day of his wedding.

What brought that streak to an end? Lou one day talked to his manager and benched himself for the good of the team. A couple of weeks later 60,000 people gathered at Yankee Stadium on July 4th, 1939…

“Yet, there lives on the ancient claim – we win or lose within ourselves.” – part of George Moriarty’s The Road Ahead or the Road Behind.

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Categorised in: Meeting Topic Ideas, Sports and Leadership

2 Responses »


  1. Simon Sinek: Leaders Eat Last | Silvio Kusakawa
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