What Would Wooden Say?

Posted 06.07.2010

John_wooden It's easy to conclude that they just don't make them like John Wooden anymore. Like my grandfather, who passed away at age 93 a couple of years ago, Wooden was literally a man from another century. As so many tributes over the weekend recalled, he was the winningest coach in college basketball history leading UCLA to 10 national championships in the 1960's and 1970's. He was so much more than that though. 

As evidenced by the many former players including Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabar who flew in from around the country and around the world to stand watch at his deathbed, Wooden shaped lives. He did it through his coaching, his teaching, his actions and his words. One article I read about him said that he never accepted a salary at UCLA that was higher than $32,500 because it wouldn't be modest. As my mother asked me in a phone call last night, how often do we even hear the word modest anymore?

For the past year or so, I've been using the following Wooden quote to close my presentations because I love the way he described the effect of continuous improvement:

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur… Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That's the only way it happens and when it happens it lasts.

Wooden, for me, has been a Yoda like figure. Small stature, but huge in wisdom. I've been thinking the past couple of days about what he would say about the quality of leadership in the public arena these days.  What would his take be on oil spills in the Gulf, safety violations that led to the deaths of coal miners, short term interest decisions that led to the near collapse of the global economy? We'll never know what Wooden would have said about the failure of leadership in these and other arenas, but by reading through some of his quotes, I think we can make an educated guess:

  • Be prepared and be honest.
  • Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.
  • If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?
  • It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
  • Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

What's your favorite quote that you think all leaders should have taped to their bathroom mirror? Is there a Wooden quote I didn't mention that you particularly like? Who else do you look to for timeless wisdom and guidance?