What is leadership?  Ask ten people and you could get ten different answers.  There are many leadership styles that include transformational, transactional, situational, democratic, and servant leadership. The leadership style of John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches in American collegiate history, could be considered a combination of servant and transformational leadership. Leadership is needed at home, at school, in coaching, in the community, and at work. It helps set a vision and supports the actions to accomplish that vision.

John Wooden served as the head coach for the UCLA men’s basketball team from 1948 through 1975. During this period, UCLA won 10 NCAA national championships, including 88 straight games and four perfect seasons. Why was John Wooden an extraordinary leader?  According to others he taught good habits and displayed certain character traits. Described below are the habits, personal characteristics, and leadership style that made John Wooden an extraordinary leader.

John Wooden was a man who lived by a set of values established early in life through his father’s own leadership and other mentors. A common theme of others opinions is John Wooden was a man of character who cared deeply about the people he leads.  He created a culture where people under his leadership succeeded on the basketball court, as well as in life.

What was John Wooden’s Approach on Leadership?

Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp completed research on John Wooden’s leadership practices that included collecting qualitative and quantitative data from observing John Wooden’s leadership approach at UCLA practices. Gallimore and Tharp (2004, 124) concluded:

“It is now clear Coach Wooden’s economical teaching that we observed was the product of extensive, detailed, and daily planning based on continuous evaluation of individual and team development and performance. His developing and planning of lessons many now argue are keys to effective teaching. He studied each individual very carefully so he could anticipate what his students would do—or fail to do—and he was primed and ready to instantly respond with one of those brief, information-packed instructions.”

John Wooden’s leadership characteristics allowed him to be fully aware about how to lead each individual to do their best. This statement is highlighted by the summary of a personal interview of John Wooden conducted by Gallimore and Tharp (2004, 126):

“They are all different. There is no formula. I could name players, all who were spirited, but in a different way. You can’t work with them exactly the same way. You’ve got to study and analyze each individual and find out what makes them tick and how you can get them under control. Some you may have to put on the bench more. Others you’ve got to pat on the back more. I wish there was a formula. The same thing won’t work with every team. It depends on the personnel…So to build a team you have to know the individuals you are working with.”

Success equates to a leader or coach who is engaged, focused, organized, industrious, and who is willing to persevere. Wooden exhibited these tendencies: he recruited students based upon certain personal characteristics including how they treated others; he was a master teacher effectively using every minute of practice; and he planned exhaustively looking at his players and the upcoming season.  

 John Wooden’s approach on leadership was simple. Wooden and Jamison (2005, xi), state that, “Dr. Albert Einstein and Coach John Wooden share a similar brilliance; specifically both mastered the complicated art of keeping it simple.” Essentially, Coach Wooden taught good habits. He believed that leadership was all about helping others achieve their own success by helping the organization succeed. John Wooden created the Pyramid of Success as a model to follow to achieve success. Wooden and Jamison (2005, 16) quoted Wooden, “Ultimately, I wanted the Pyramid’s fifteen building blocks to define me as a leader.”. The Pyramid’s blocks and tiers are Wooden’s directions on how to achieve success by realizing their own potential. Wooden chose fifteen fundamental values as blocks for his Pyramid of Success and believed that there was no leadership tool more powerful than one’s own personal example.  A graphic reproduction of John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is provided and discussed below.

The Pyramid of Success starts with a strong base and continues to rise to the peak; where Wooden places success as the crowning achievement.

Base/Tier 1:

Industriousness:  "There is no substitute for work. None. Worthwhile things come from real work."

Enthusiasm:  "Your energy and enjoyment drive and dedication will stimulate and greatly inspire others."

Friendship: “Strive to build a team filed with camaraderie and respect: comrades-in-arms.

Loyalty: “Be true to yourself. Be true to those your lead.”

Cooperation: “Have utmost concern for what’s right rather than who’s right.”

Tier 2:

Self-Control: “Control of your organization begins with control of yourself. Be disciplined.”

Alertness: “Constantly be aware and observing. Always seek to improve yourself and the team.”

Initiative: “Make a decision! Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all.”

Intentness: “Stay the course. When thwarted try again; harder; smarter. Persevere relentlessly.”

Tier 3:

Condition: “Ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there-mental, moral, and physical.”

Skill: “What a leader learns after you’ve learned it all counts most of all.”

Team Spirit: “The star of the team is the team. ‘We supersedes me’”

Tier 4:

Poise: “Be yourself. Don’t be thrown off by events whether good or bad.”

Confidence: “The strongest steel is well-founded self-belief. It is earned, not given.”

Peak/Tier 5:

Competitive Greatness: "Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day."

Other leadership characteristics that John Wooden portrayed and thought were important to the success of the individual and the organization included the following:

Talent: Buckingham and Coffman (1999, 105) idolized the importance of talent to success and quoted John Wooden, “No matter how you total success in the coaching profession, it all comes down to a single factor-talent. There may be a hundred great coaches of whom you have never heard in basketball, football, or any sport who will probably never receive the acclaim they deserve simple because they have not been blessed with the talent. Although not every coach can win consistently with talent, no coach can without it.”

Values come first: John Wooden believed in the importance of good values. As reported in Wooden and Jamison (2005, 68), Wooden understood that, “Good values are like a magnet-they attract good people.”  Essentially, values create an environment of integrity.

Love for the people you lead: “I will not like you all the same, but I will love you all the same” (as cited in Wooden and Jamison, 2005, 80).  This statement reflects upon John Wooden’s true desire to care and help people. Equally important is Wooden’s thoughts on this, “I revere in the opportunity and obligation it confers, namely, the power to change lives and make a difference. For me, leadership is a sacred trust.” (as cited in Wooden and Jamison, 2005, 81).

Control emotions. John Wooden believed that emotionalism made you weak. He embraced intensity but reviled emotionalism. His belief was to cultivate consistency through discipline which in turn would also push his students to play consistently. John Wooden believed that discipline was the key in many attributes including keeping your emotions in check.

Flexibility: John Wooden understood that to be a great leader one must be flexible. Flexibility is having the ability to adjust your leadership style to the situation as well as to the individual. Keith Erickson, a former player under Coach Wooden at UCLA, concluded, “What made Coach Wooden so effective as a leader was his ability to work with every type of person-different temperaments, personalities, styles, and all the rest. He knew how to get them to do it his way, and this included people who were total opposites.” (as cited in Wooden and Jamison, 2007, 131).

Change: Wooden believed in the importance of change and to always stay hungry and never be complacent with the status quo. John Wooden summarized this nicely in Wooden and Jamison (2007, 195), “Never be satisfied. Work constantly to improve. Perfection is a goal that can never be reached, but it must be the objective. The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast.”

Listening: “An effective leader is very good at listening. And it’s difficult to listen when you’re talking” as cited in Wooden and Jamison (2007, 198). John Wooden believed that listening had two facets; deep listening and employing others who were not afraid to present an alternate opinion. John Wooden surrounded himself with people who were confident enough to communicate their opinion in an effort to change for the better by working towards continuous improvement for all that he said and did.

Continuous Learning: John Wooden considered continuous learning as a prerequisite for leadership. Wooden believed that the core of being an effective leader was to, “Live as though you’ll die tomorrow. Learn as though you’ll live forever.” as cited in Wooden and Jamison (2007, 5).

John Wooden believed the prerequisites for leadership included continuous learning, humility, hard work, and character. Continuous learning is identified as Skill in the Pyramid to Success and is an important characteristic that shaped Wooden’s leadership style. He reached out to others throughout his career; some were mentors and others were teachers but he understood that he could always learn something from others even if it was what not to do.  He taught humility throughout his coaching career and wouldn’t allow any team member to get too exuberant. He was characterized as having the same demeanor regardless if they were winning or losing. Hard work, the cornerstone to success is to be engaged, totally focused, and completely absorbed in your activity. Character is what you do and what shapes you. It can be as simple as picking up your towel or standing up for what you believe and is what Wooden calls habits.

Fellowship and character-respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for the organization laid the foundation for John Wooden’s values and created an atmosphere where followers believed in the mission. John Wooden believed in the power of setting a good example. He demonstrated respect for himself and respect for others. There is a big difference in giving it all you have in order to succeed versus doing whatever it takes. The difference is value and character. Doing whatever it takes implies that one may bend their own values and character to come out ahead. Someone who sticks to their values and character and gives it their all may not necessarily win, but they will succeed.

John Wooden was an extraordinary leader because his focus was on character development of those he led and because of his desire to serve others. He set the vision and put things into action.  Leadership is making connections with people and impacting their life in a positive way and, in turn, they go out and impact others in a positive way.


Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world's greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Gallimore, Ronald, and Roland Tharp. 2004. What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975- 2004: Reflections and Reanalysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices. The Sports Psychologist 18 (2), 119-37.

Wooden, John.  “John Wooden: The Difference between Winning and Succeeding” TED Talk, January 2001. http://www.ted.com/talks/john_wooden_on_the_difference_between_winning_and_success.html

Wooden, John, and Steve Jamison. 2005. Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Wooden, John, and Steve Jamison. 2007. The Essential Wooden: a Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.