John Wooden's best coaching tip: Listen

john_wooden.gi.top.jpg By Andy Serwer, managing editor


FORTUNE -- Former UCLA Coach John Wooden passed away Friday June 4th. He is widely considered the greatest basketball coach of all time, and many believe he is the greatest coach of any sport. Wooden won ten national championships in his years 16 years at UCLA. A skilled player himself, Wooden is one of only three individuals (along with Lenny Wilkins and Bill Sharman) to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and a coach.

But Wooden was more than just a basketball guy. He was a great mentor to his world famous players like Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Wooden was also sought out as an expert on leadership and management. He was author of seven books on coaching and leadership, and millions of athletes and business people alike have learned from his clear, honest and homespun Indiana thinking. Wooden was 99.

I met Coach John Wooden late in his life, two years ago in Los Angeles. I was helping to host the UCLA Anderson School of Management's John Wooden Global Leadership Awards dinner, where I was to lead a conversation with Coach and with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the first recipient of the award.

Before we went out on stage, the three of us sat in the green room making small talk. And believe me the talk was pretty small. Coach was very cordial -- and Howard and I being huge basketball fans were a bit in awe -- but he was not particularly communicative. Well, I thought, at 97, I might not have a lot to say either. So Howard and I mostly talked and Coach mostly nodded.

As I walked out onto the stage in front of a full ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, I was figuring this might be a tough gig. (I was to interview Coach one-on-one first; Howard would join us after a bit.) Based on what happened in the green room it seemed that Coach, legend that he was, just wasn't very talkative.

I was wrong.

Turns out that Coach John Wooden was doing something backstage that so few us do -- including yours truly. That is, he was listening. Really listening. He wanted to hear what the CEO of Starbucks (SBUX, Fortune 500) and the editor of Fortune had to say. I know this because once I began to ask him questions, Coach spoke right up and gave long insightful answers. And he talked about the importance of listening.

How to earn respect from your players and employees

First I asked Wooden about leadership and he said: "A leader must command respect of those under him. They must know that the leader cares about them. Really cares about them. That he really cares about their family." Listening to his former players like Walton, Michael Warren and Keith Erickson talk about their relationship with Coach, you could tell this was really no bull from Wooden. These guys had become his dear friends.

I asked Coach why more people weren't better leaders, and how come what he said sounded so simple and yet was so difficult to put into practice. (He's a bit like Warren Buffett that way.) "They don't listen," Wooden replied. "Listening is the best way to learn. You have to listen to those who you are supervising. I remember long ago, when I was in grade school. I learned this: 'a wise old owl sat in an oak. The more he heard the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. The more he heard, the more he learned. Now wasn't he a wise old bird?'" As he said that I realized he was reciting something he learned some 90 years ago in a small Indiana farm town around the time of World War I. Amazing...

Wooden reminded me that instead of listening in a conversation, some people instead are just thinking about the next thing they are going to say. Gulp. That's what I was doing right at that moment! How did he know? The conversation continued and Howard came on stage and I hung on every word. (You can watch the interviews here.)

Shooting for "competitive greatness"

I returned the following year to meet with Coach again and help present the award, this time to American Express (AXP, Fortune 500) CEO Ken Chenault and again I tried to soak up all of the Coach's wisdom that I could.

I often remember Coach Wooden's maxims and sometimes try to apply them to my life. One of my favorites is kind of a basketball line, but it applies generally too: "Be quick, but don't hurry." I like that.

I also keep what Coach called the Pyramid of Success, a chart of 15 elements that Wooden said he spent years perfecting. The top square -- the ultimate achievement I guess -- is "Competitive Greatness." I haven't been so successful in attaining the goals of the pyramid, but I try.

What's most impressive to me about Coach Wooden is his integrity. He battled racism in college sports and sought no credit for his efforts; it was just something he did. Wooden became a model for other great coaches like North Carolina's Dean Smith, not just in terms of coaching philosophy but also in terms of values, humility and treating players with the utmost respect.

But Wooden's legacy went far beyond basketball. I happened to be with Howard Schultz this past Thursday and told him that Coach was gravely ill. Howard's face fell. Hours after Coach passed away, Howard sent me an email from author Brian Biro who knew Coach. In the email Biro wrote: "You can judge the quality of a person by the way he treats those who can do nothing for him. Coach passed that test of character with flying colors."

There aren't many people who have achieved the kind of success Coach had, while also being considered by just about everyone to be a man of integrity. Coach Wooden was an American Original in the best sense of the term. RIP, Coach. We will miss you. To top of page

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