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Jun-06-2010 23:38printcomments

The Wizard of Westwood: A Leader for the Ages

"Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming" - John Wooden

(Charleston, SC) - Few in the arena of sports and leadership have had such a lasting impact on and off the court than legendary basketball coach John Wooden. At the age of 99, just four months shy of his 100th birthday, John Wooden has passed away.

Wooden’s record at UCLA is that of legend. During his tenure, the Bruins amassed an amazing 88-game win streak from 1964 to 1975. His team went undefeated for four seasons and won 10 national championships. Simply put, Wooden was in a league of his own and he did it with hard work, grace, and dignity that endeared him to his players and opponents alike.

One of the standout players from the Wooden era is Bill Walton. Writing in the introduction to Wooden’s book, Wooden- A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court, he gives insight into what endeared players and fans alike to this amazing man. From Walton’s insights come leadership lessons that are worth emulating and building in our own lives. Here are a few leadership traits Walton reveals about his coach.

Be the best you can be. Walton writes, “John Wooden taught us to focus on one primary objective: be the best you can be in whatever endeavor you undertake.” Wooden by his own admission was not the best coach out there. But he was relentless in perfecting the fundamentals that ultimately set his teams apart from the rest.

“The skills he taught us on the court,” adds Walton, “teamwork, personal excellence, discipline, dedication, focus, organization, and leadership- are just some of the tools you need in the real world. Coach showed us how these skills are transferable. He wasn’t just teaching us about basketball, he was teaching us about life.”

Wooden believed that if he could impart an attitude of excellence to those young men as basketball players, it would transfer to their personal life in preparation for the real world. What Wooden understood and demanded was not perfection, but to simply be the best you can be- nothing less.

Understand the power of right thinking. Walton writes, “You saw how true he was to doing things right, by thinking right. Coach Wooden was more interested in the process than in the result.” In short, Wooden believed that right thinking was the surest way to overcome any obstacle- on and off the court. The most important thing was the process, not the result.

Wooden’s coaching philosophy was about substance over image, it was about quality not quantity. Walton continues, “He really wanted things done correctly and it started with the way he did things, you wanted to follow him and his example.” What Wooden understood and what he imparted was in order to get the result you desire, begins not with your physical ability but with your mental awareness. He imparted the power of right thinking.

Be true to yourself. Walton writes, “He taught us the values and characteristics that could make us not only good players, but also good people.

He taught us to be true to ourselves while also striving to be our best.’ This is perhaps one of the highest compliments a player could bestow upon his coach and mentor.

While phenomenal as a coach, his lasting legacy will be the impact he had on the lives of countless people off the court. His faith taught him to value things far more important than a game, stats, and records.

Wooden said, “We who coach have great influence on the lives of all the young men who come under our supervision, and the lives we lead will play an important role in their future. It is essential that we regard this as a sacred trust and set the example that we know is right.”

Wooden’s success on the basketball court was secondary to his faith, family, and guiding principles that shaped the lives of so many people.

As Wooden said, “True happiness comes from the things that cannot be taken away from you. Making the full effort to do the right thing can never be taken away from you.”

In the arena of sports, Wooden’s legacy will forever be secure. As a leader, he will be sorely missed.


Doug Dickerson is the former editor of the Berkeley Independent newspaper in South Carolina and is currently the director of university relations at Charleston Southern University. Doug’s writing has been recognized by the South Carolina Press Association, having won awards for enterprise reporting, series of articles, and for humor column writing. Doug’s passion for communicating leadership principles and personal development is crystallized through his Management Moment column and leadership columns he writes. Read more of Doug’s columns on his blog at

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.