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John Wooden -- Beyond Categorization

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Some years ago at a Los Angeles fundraising event I added my applause to hundreds of other clapping hands in salute to John Wooden, the long retired UCLA basketball coach. Like most people in that room, I'd never met coach Wooden but was enthralled by his legendary winning record and his almost beatific presence that evening. Now that his body has died, an untold number of us recognize his unique spirit that defied the confines of being labeled as just a basketball coach.

For me, the magic of learning about Mr. Wooden's approach to his life and his profession is that his guiding principles easily transcend the athletic arena and have value for anyone who wants to maximize their talents and interests. Like all great inspirational figures, part of his legacy is a treasure trove of phrases that put his ideas into bite sized and memorable quotations. An example is "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." No matter what business or stage of life you are in, I think you'd benefit from reading any one of Coach Wooden's books. I'd suggest having a look at Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. On Amazon, the book has a five-star rating with 79 reader reviews which is quite an endorsement for the value of its contents. That may not be the New York Times best seller list, but it is real world success. You'd do well to cuddle up with that one if you are wondering how to build a team that can take your enterprise to a higher level of accomplishment. Small business owners often complain of not having the time to read enough but that really is the easiest way to feed your mind the necessary high value information pertinent to growing a company.

Just about anyone who is serious about personal development has looked at or at least heard about John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success," which puts his guiding principles into an easy to read graphic form. The expressed values written on the pyramid were foundational to his herculean accomplishments. Most of us would be thrilled with equaling just a piece of his work. Wooden's successes include 10 NCAA national basketball championships in 12 years (including 7 in a row!), 88 consecutive victories, and 38 straight NCAA tournament victories, many coach-of-the-year honors, Sports Illustrated's sportsman of the year, a lifetime winning percentage of over 80%, and the first man to be elected to college basketball's hall of fame as both a player and coach.

I like coach Wooden's definition of success, which he expressed as the "peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming." That is a principle that I see often at the highest levels of sports and business. Sometimes we spend much too much time comparing ourselves to others, including our competitors and even our friends. I'm told that Wooden didn't pay much attention to scouting what opposing teams were doing but instead worked long and hard with his players to maximize their potential, because true champions are really only playing against themselves. When you pause to think about high achievers such as Lance Armstrong, Steve Jobs, Muhammad Ali and Thomas Edison at the peak of their powers, their results went far beyond others in their fields. In the ultimate feat of setting their own high standards, they had competitors, but no equals.

John Wooden didn't write about complex ideas with all sorts of research footnotes. And very little of what he really taught is about basketball. I can see that he lived his life based on a clear set of principles, values and ideals. As I read tributes to him from past members of his championship teams, some of them didn't realize how wise and helpful he was until many years had passed. For the rest of us who never had a chance to get an earful of his guidance, we are fortunate that beyond the books there are a number of audio and video interviews that survive. The trove of his quotes is rich with ideas for management, leadership or parenting such as "The best thing we could do for those we love is to not do what they're capable of doing for themselves." At a time when America is stumbling a bit and searching for true heroes to show us a path forward, Wooden's life is a guiding light to how we can grow the hero within ourselves. Some days we simply have to be our own coach. It is easy to simply box and package John Wooden as little more than a basketball coach but I see him as having grown far beyond that--in fact, I think that he was beyond categorization.