What today’s CEO can learn from John Wooden

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With March Madness reaching its peak in the coming days, it’s hard not to think of the great colleges coaches from years past: Adolph Rupp (Kentucky), Phog Allen (Kansas), Dean Smith (UNC), Bobby Knight (Indiana) and of course, John Wooden of UCLA who remains head and shoulders above the rest with his ten NCAA tournament titles. Yet it’s interesting to note that Wooden didn’t win his first championship until he was 53 years old. He had been the head coach at UCLA for sixteen seasons prior, but his teams had enjoyed limited success during those years. Before the breakthrough 1964 season, Wooden’s teams appeared in only five NCAA tournaments and on four of those occasions, they never made it past the first round.

All that changed with the 1963-64 squad, when Wooden won his first NCAA championship with a team that finished the season with a perfect 30-0 record. Eleven years and ten national championships later, Wooden retired from coaching with a record that may never be matched. His streak of seven consecutive national crowns during that time period included three more teams with perfect 30-0 records; during one three-year stretch, his teams won a record 88 straight games.

So what happened—what was the tipping point—that allowed Wooden to begin this incredible streak of success after previously experiencing sixteen seasons of relative mediocrity? According to Wooden, “Six or seven of my teams, in my opinion, had the potential to win the NCAA championship before the 1964 team succeeded. Each might have been good enough to win, but the ‘if’ always arose…’if’ we had done this or ‘if’ we had done that, it might have been different.”

The “if” that Wooden was talking about ended up being an error that Wooden himself acknowledged shortly after retirement that he had blundered badly early in his career by associating too much with yes-men. The criticism was not directed so much at his assistants—many of whom were outstanding coaches in their own right—but at himself and the way his strong personality seemed to enable their passive behavior at times when a more forceful approach was needed. After disappointing exits in both the 1962 and 1963 tournaments, Wooden realized that to get to the next level, he needed to change the way he managed his assistants.

The perfect man to test Wooden’s newfound style was an argumentative assistant named Jerry Norman. Norman had been a player for Wooden in the early 1950s, and his relationship with the coach had been strained from the start. Wooden remembered Norman as “very headstrong, set in his ways and profane. Jerry gave me fits. I don’t believe I ever had a boy more strong willed, more sure of himself and more outspoken.”

Nine years later, Wooden brought Norman back to UCLA, first as the freshman coach, then promoted to assistant. “I guess I wanted a rebel,” Wooden wrote, “someone who would stand up to me.” After the 1963 season, Norman pressed Wooden to make needed changes. He forcefully argued that UCLA needed to drop their full-court man-to-man defense and replace it with a zone press.

“I laid out the rationale,” says Norman, who had used a zone press successfully as the coach of the Bruins’ freshman team. Wooden was initially skeptical of his assistant’s idea, but after intense lobbying by Norman, he finally came around to the idea—and the rest is history. The 1963-64 team used the zone press in devastating fashion—the first of many UCLA teams to exploit the zone press to their advantage.

No one knows what the future would have held for John Wooden and UCLA had the coach not gone out of his way to hire more forceful assistants. Prior to the start of the 1963-64 season, the Bruins were unranked and little was expected of the team. Thirty games later while playing Duke for the national championship, UCLA used the zone press—the same press that Wooden would have dismissed had Norman not stood up to the coach and been so forceful—to roll off 16 unanswered points to take the halftime lead. The zone press helped force 29 Duke turnovers for the game—and UCLA won, going away 98-83. It was the first of Wooden’s ten national championships.

John Wooden’s change in the way he managed his staff in the early 1960s was brilliant not so much in the sense that he hired better assistant coaches; rather, it was because he explicitly changed his management philosophy in the hiring of assistants who would challenge him and not back down with their arguments. The abrupt change in results speaks for itself; for today’s strong leader, properly managing your executive staff to encourage open debate can also help turn mediocre performance into championship-class success.

Here’s the takeaway: The story of Wooden’s “tipping point” decision and the contrasting results that followed is, perhaps, the most overlooked leadership lesson that today’s CEO can glean from the legacy of John Wooden.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

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