John Wooden’s passing on June 4, 2010 marked the loss of a legend in the field of leadership. “Coach,” as he was known, inspired countless people over the years through his teachings, writings, and selfless acts of service. Wooden’s contributions as a writer, speaker, and thought leader far exceeded his impact as a basketball coach which is no small feat considering he won 10 NCAA national championships while coaching at UCLA!
Last week I had a conversation with Ken Blanchard to get his thoughts on John Wooden’s passing and his contributions to the field of leadership. Blanchard first met Wooden in 1995 when they shared the speaking platform at a leadership breakfast at Long Beach State University. “My friend Bob Buford had recently written his book ‘Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance’ in which he posed the question of whether people at midlife felt their best years were behind them or ahead of them. I posed that same question to Coach Wooden, who was 85 years old at the time. He told me ‘Ken, I have so much to look forward to.’ I think he probably had more of an impact in his ‘retirement’ than he did coaching basketball.”
“Wooden was a gentle, humble man, but he was also a stickler for principles that he considered important” recounted Blanchard. “I remember him telling the story of Bill Walton showing up one day with a full beard, knowing full well that Coach Wooden had a team policy prohibiting facial hair. Walton explained that it was his right to have as much facial hair as he wanted and he wasn’t going to shave. Coach Wooden told him ‘Bill, I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. We’re all going to miss you!’”
“In my viewpoint, John Wooden personified what it means to ‘lead at a higher level’”, Blanchard said. “Leading at a higher level means that you focus on the greater good. Too many leaders think leadership is all about them and their own self interests. People who lead at a higher level want to achieve worthwhile results while acting with care, respect, and fairness for the well-being of all who are involved.”
In mourning Wooden’s death last week, words like “love,” “service,” “sacrifice,” “role model,” “leader,” “mentor,” and “father figure” were used by the people who knew him best. The focus was not on all the wins, championships, or players he sent to the NBA. It was on the impact he had as a leader who clearly demonstrated the values of servant leadership and what it means to lead at a higher level.
Thanks for showing us the way, Coach. We’re going to miss you.