8 Keys to Coach John Wooden’s Servant Leadership

The following is an excerpt from Lynn Guerin and Jason Lavin’s Coach ‘Em Way Up: 5 Lessons for Leading the John Wooden Way, out now from Entrepreneur Press.


Legendary basketball coach John Wooden had what he called an “MBA”: a mop-and-bucket attitude. In other words, he believed in doing the hard work necessary to help everyone in his organization succeed. If a floor needed cleaning, clean it. If a trash can needed emptying, empty it — no matter what your offiial job title says.

Coach never left a locker room not picked up. He didn’t want anyone to be relying on the assistants to pick up after them or think he was asking them to do something he would not do himself. It was entirely possible that, before he picked up the locker room, he had walked into the shower in his suit and tie, picked the soap off the floor and put it in the dish. He would keep doing that until his players said, “Oh!” and did it themselves without asking. He wanted his kids to take pride in where they worked the way he took pride in it. He took as much — more — satisfaction in letters he would get from custodians at other colleges about how incredibly his team behaved as he did in a victory.

Coach Wooden’s record as a servant leader remains undefeated. Yours can, too, if you emulate these eight qualities of the legend himself.

1. Try to do the right thing

Whether it was a hard decision he had to make, a heartfelt apology he had to give or a mistake he had to admit, he always tried to “walk the walk and let his actions speak for themselves.” For example, when Coach’s 1947 Indiana State team won an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) annual basketball tournament, he turned it down. The NAIA banned Black players, and a player on Coach’s team, Clarence Walker, was Black. How are you showing fairness, consideration and true inclusion when it comes to the people you lead?

2. Measure and choose your words carefully

For Coach, this statement was all about self-control and making good choices. He never used profanity. He would offer concern but never judgment. He would offer his opinion but never advice unless asked directly for it. He wouldn’t speak ill of anyone at any time or place blame. Coach also knew that higher the quality of the listening he was doing, the higher the quality of his words. How carefully are you choosing your words as you communicate with your team and the people you love?

3. Keep your word

The University of Minnesota wanted to hire Coach in 1948, and Coach wanted to stay in the Midwest. But when weather prevented Minnesota from calling with an offer, Coach thought there was none in the offing and committed to UCLA. When Minnesota finally reached Coach, he declined the offer as he had given his word to UCLA, and his word was his bond. When was the last time you made a decision in which it was more important to keep your word than to gain any benefit from the decision you made?

4. Reflect true humility

At every point in his career, even during his teams’ remarkable championship run, Coach always shared the credit, deflected the praise, shunned the limelight and started nearly every speech he gave with a self-deprecating story. He loved recalling an article in a small Indiana town newspaper called “Ten Years Ago Today,” where they announced that Coach John Wooden was the principal speaker at the annual awards dinner, although “they had hoped to get a prominent person.” You don’t practice humility. If you have to think about your own humility or how humble you are, you likely aren’t too humble. True humility comes from a place of inner peace and strength — and poise. How are you demonstrating this poise?

5. Have your priorities straight

Coach always counseled, “Don’t be so busy making a living that you don’t have time to make a life.” He loved teaching basketball, but not if there was nothing to teach. The Los Angeles Lakers offered Coach a million dollars a year (30 times what he made at UCLA) and an oceanfront home in La Jolla, California, to join them. He declined. He not only felt there were more important things than basketball and money, but he also felt the players on the Lakers had stopped learning about playing the game of basketball. Are the priorities you think you have reflected in your day-to-day behavior and in how you invest your time and resources?

6. Refuse to be judgmental

When we’re not judging others, we’re not likely to be judged ourselves. That refusal to judge was part
of the core of Coach taking unpopular positions in order to treat each person with dignity and character regardless of who they were, what their motives might be, or the color of their skin. For example, his support of Black players and coaches helped desegregate sports. Think about the last time you felt unfairly judged. How did it make you feel? Could you have made someone else feel the same way recently based on how you judged them?

7. Live by the golden rule

Coach was a tough, hardworking, demanding disciplinarian who was also kind, interested, considerate, compassionate and patient. He never put anyone down and always looked for a way to compliment others. He was generous with his time and attention. He treated people the way he wanted to be treated and the way he had seen his parents treat others. Are you treating people the way you would want to be treated?

8. Have an attitude of service

Countless people have stories about Coach going out of his way to be of service to them with no thought of anything in return. He felt the choice was simple: You could spend your life serving yourself or serving others. Coach believed an attitude of pure service and helping others was essential to true peace of mind. The more you serve others, the more likely you are to move toward that peace of mind. Serving yourself never puts you at peace because you are always in a position of comparing yourself to others and striving not to be outdone by your neighbors’ material possessions — the
things, Coach said, that never last. Is your life focused more on being served or serving others?

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