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Leadership Lessons from UCLA's John Wooden

He is arguably the best basketball coach ever, with a record 10 national titles as coach of UCLA's basketball team and the distinction of being the first person to be voted into basketball's Hall of Fame as both a player—he was a three-time all-American at Purdue University—and coach. But John Wooden, 98, describes himself as a teacher. "I miss the practices," he says, sitting in a wheelchair not far from a folding chair covered with a UCLA cushion, similar to the one he sat on while directing the Bruins through their glory days. "Teaching players during practices was what coaching was all about, to me."

Wooden retired after the 1975 season (during which UCLA won its 10th title), ending his coaching tenure with a 664-162 won-lost record over 29 seasons. Since then he has lectured and written six books about leadership and life. In The John Wooden Pyramid of Success, he outlines the life lessons he taught his players, which he says can be applied to business professionals who today face the worst crises of their careers. Among the tenets of Wooden's pyramid of success: "Ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there." Another: "Control of your organization begins with control of yourself. Be disciplined."

Last year, UCLA's Anderson School of Management established its John Wooden Global Leadership Award and made Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz its first honoree. The school's second award will be given on May 21 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to American Express (AXP) CEO Kenneth I. Chenault.

Los Angeles Bureau Chief Ron Grover interviewed Coach Wooden (he's simply called "Coach" by those who know him) at his home in Encino, Calif., whose walls are filled with letters from U.S. Presidents, team photos of his championship squads, and the cover of Sports Illustrated, which in 1973 named him Sports Man of the Year. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Does it take the same kind of leadership to run a business that it took to coach a basketball team?

I think that in any group activity—whether it be business, sports, or family—there has to be leadership or it won't be successful. You have to get people to work together, to acknowledge each other, to take an interest in them and in their world.

My players know that I was interested in them and their families and [wanted to know] if there were any problems. I worry that business leaders are more interested in material gain than they are in having the patience to build up a strong organization, and a strong organization starts with caring for their people.

Today's economy makes patience hard to come by, don't you think?

Sure, things are different than they would be ordinarily. But in my pyramid there are two things that lead to the apex. On the one side, there is patience, and the other side there is faith. When things are down, you have to have patience and then you have to have faith that things will work out. And they always have [worked out] in this country, and they always will.

They may not work out the way you hope, but that's why you need the patience to stick to what got you there first place.

Today the reaction seems to be to lay off people. How would you deal with the human dynamics of that?

I hope that I would show my concern for them and I hope they would know me well enough [to understand] we are doing this as a last resort, and that sometimes you have to hurt a few people in order to save the entire organization.

The important thing is that you have to care for the others, and not just use them for your own business purposes. And you have to communicate that. If you don't care for them, they will never have that feeling for you, and the organization will suffer when things do turn around…. But you can't give up on your people when things aren't going well. Those things won't continue. Your people will. I don't know that business leaders always understand that when you help others in your organization, you are also helping yourself.

How do you nurture people to care for the organization as a whole, rather than their own interests?

Knowing your people is the most important thing. I remember talking to [Hall of Fame Center Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] and telling him we could create an offense that would make him the greatest individual scorer in the country, but we wouldn't win any championships. And he said, "Coach, I don't want that." And he went on and was a great player—and a great team player. There are some players you need to spank every so often to get them to succeed, and others [who] will go into a shell. You have to know your people.

Did you ever think about going into business?

No, sir. I don't want to put the lives of so many people under my hand and not have the time to run it right. A lot of other [former sports people] have done it, but I was never tempted. I had five different offers to coach professional basketball, and didn't take those either. You're away from your family a lot and the owner can fire you because you don't get along with the star player. I've seen it happen here in Los Angeles.

In the end, it's about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.

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