Review: Wooden on Leadership

wooden-on-leadershipWooden, John, and Steve Jamison. Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 302 pp. $19.25.

Basketball is rather painful for our family. All four daughters played to some extent on the local high school team, though each girl is vertically challenged, and our coaches had never read Wooden on Leadership, or it seems that way. Drama prevailed over basketball fundamentals; sarcasm, bickering, and favoritism ruled both practices and games. Neither my wife nor I had participated in any high school sport, so we should have read, or at least heard of, Coach Wooden. Now we both have enjoyed his wisdom, though high school years are history.

Leadership begins with Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success,” which forms the foundation for twelve chapters on leadership, and his “notebook lessons” serve almost as an addendum. One over-arching value statement permeates these pages, and Coach/Professor Wooden isn’t afraid to repeatedly hammer this point his dad taught him: “Sons… don’t worry about whether you’re better than somebody else, but never cease trying to be the best you can become. You have control over that; the other you don’t” (6). I am grateful that our family took this perspective in both sports and child-development. Wooden applies this in a number of areas. “Don’t look at the scoreboard” reflects this characteristic since both the individual and the team strive for excellence, which is doing their best. “Making greatness attainable by all” rejects words and ideas like substitute, retiring a number, or bench-sitters are losers.

I understand bench-sitters, and I’ve heard about the importance of playing second fiddle. Wooden has helped me appreciate the purpose and impact of supporting roles. Swen Nater, for example, enabled Bill Walton to excel in the games by working together during practice. Nater was the backup center who wouldn’t start under the shadow of Walton; yet, Coach Wooden praises his contribution in attaining greatness for the team (182-83). I don’t know if I could have understood that role as a young man; yet, I expect to face that position within the next five to ten years and hope I can excel like Nater.

Wooden-isms abound. “Success breeds satisfaction; satisfaction breeds failure” (204). What an amazing challenge for our deacons this past Tuesday night! Wooden elaborates that “status quo can derail an organization quickly” (ibid.). We can’t coast on our history; we must “be willing to change” (205). Our church board members received Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church in December with the intentions of discussing it together, and, though we have yet to discuss a page, everyone has read enough to know we need to embrace change. I appreciate Wooden’s word power with its ability to step on toes without kicking shins. Other “isms” that bear repeating: “A leader who is through learning is through” (100); “A player who made the team great is better than a great player” (124); “Don’t worry about being better than someone else, but never cease trying to be the best you can become” (186).

Although Wooden started as an English teacher and a wordsmith, he backs up his words, rules, and coaching with life. His “model for good leadership is a good parent” (80). This format cannot be taught but caught; words must accompany action. “Actions trump words, and your values must be visible if they are to have an impact on those you lead…” (74). Perhaps this explains why his pyramid of success is founded on character development rather than skill. If someone had outstanding skill, yet exhibited an absence of friendship, loyalty, cooperation, or self-control, Wooden wasn’t interested in bringing him on the team. I am reminded of the qualifications for elders and deacons in 1Timothy 3 or Titus 1. Lifestyle and not mere lip-service reflect godliness within leadership development. Character counts. I wish more people today would value the impact of lifestyle and behavior in leadership. “Your own personal example is one of the most powerful leadership tools you possess” (98).

I confess that I frequently struggled with making a leadership connection between a church context and the basketball court. We run a volunteer army for teaching positions, trustees, and deacons. Who is considered team: a deacon board, the flock at large, or perhaps small groups? Who coaches these areas, and what’s the difference between a shepherd, chairman, and youth leader? Also, while I appreciate the benefit of little things, I’ve never been a detail kind of guy. If I carried 3×5 cards and lists, I’d lose the forest through the trees. So much of my time in Bible study synthesizes the big picture or idea. Commentaries like the old ICC series, Alford, or Keil and Delitzsch often squeeze juice out of a turnip with excruciating minutiae; while the more recent writers advocate synthesis and overview. However, I greatly enjoy finding nuances in narratives, and I utilize a list for praying for all our families by name. So, I guess there’s room for lists, if I can use this term somewhat loosely.

Not only was Wooden a great teacher and leader, he was also a non-stop student. He listened and learned from his players, coaching staff, and other team leaders. If he was wrong or felt someone expressed a better idea, he’d adjust his practices or allow the assistant coaches to implement changes. Having lived just four months shy of 100, John Wooden never stopped learning, and this resource unfolds 90+ years of wisdom, character, and leadership (228). Having just completed the NCAA championships that repeated his name, Wooden’s legacy cannot be considered old fashioned. Although the used copy I have read contains a handwritten Christmas letter on the opening binding from Mom to coach-son Stephen, I trust that today’s leaders will embrace Coach’s pyramid, life lessons, and Wooden-isms.

David Kelly is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Wellston, Ohio. He is a graduate of Lock Haven State in Pennsylvania (BS) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM).

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