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Leadership Lessons from John Wooden

A few weeks ago, the Vanderbilt Men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings came into the national spot light for his leadership style. If you did not follow what happened, Stallings was caught on tape screaming obscenities at one of his players. Stallings believed this player was taunting an opposing player after the game. While many people had an opinion of this unfortunate episode, I was more interested in understanding why a leader would act that way.

The underlying cause is simple: EGO. Many leaders believe that the outcome of the game or the behavior of the players is a direct representation of themselves. When the outcome does not go as planned and/or a player’s behavior is not ideal then anger can ensue. Go to any recreational ballpark in our country and you will see little league coaches yelling stupidities at their young players for making a mistake.

Does your ego impact your behavior and decision making when leading others?

Great leaders don’t lead by ego, but rather focus on serving others. One of the greatest examples of this leadership principle was John Wooden. While he led the UCLA Men’s basketball team to ten NCAA championship in a 12-year period, he did not focus his psychic energies on that amazing statistic. Rather, his joy came from helping his players to become men of service. He relished that so many of his players had become attorneys, doctors, teachers, and other professions which positively impacted the world. Bill Walton, one of his players and one of the greatest basketball players of all time, mentioned how much John Wooden meant to him as a mentor and role model as a person. He stated that John Wooden made him the man that he is today.

Like Walton, so many of his players knew that John Wooden primarily cared about their personal development and that winning was secondary. Because of this leadership style, his players were hyper-motivated to perform for Wooden. They trusted his words and strategies; and in culmination, he became a leader without peer.

The leadership style of John Wooden is not just meant for sport. This style is highly effective in business as well. Leaders must have the right vision for their company, but today’s business moniker must be more than just profits and the bottom line. Leaders must focus on the top line—serving your staff and caring about their professional and personal development. Amazing growth and productivity of an organization will occur when service plays the highest priority.

Dr. Gregg Steinberg is a professor of human performance at Austin Peay State University. He is author of the Washington Post bestselling business book “Full Throttle” and speaks to businesses about improving attitude and performance. E-mail him at and learn more at

About Gregg Steinberg

Dr. Gregg Steinberg is a performance psychology expert, best selling author, and inspirational keynote speaker on the various topics relating to individual and team performance. Google+ Profile Get in touch with Dr. Gregg

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