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Leadership the John Wooden Way: 4 Characteristics of Great Coaches

December 14, 2012 | Lee Gordon

John Wooden
Former UCLA Head Basketball Coach John Wooden, the only collegiate coach to win 10 NCAA National Championships, is considered by many to be the greatest coach in the history of all sports. More than a dozen leadership books are based on his teachings, and his admirers include some of today’s most successful coaches, like two-time Super Bowl Champion Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants.

Coughlin and many others employ the techniques taught in Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, a 15-step process designed to foster attributes of true leadership. But if there were a perfect formula for leadership, everyone would follow it. So what do coaches like Nick Saban, Rick Pitino, and Vince Lombardi do that others don’t? What attributes make them not just good, but great? While it’s impossible to say exactly what works, there are four characteristics that nearly all great leaders share.

1. They Get People to “Buy In”

Athletes have to work at things, and coaches must convince others why they should work—fostering a belief within them that their work matters. Whether coach oversees a 12-man basketball squad or a 65-man football roster, each player is an individual, and each has his or her own agenda. A coach must mold the players together and convince them to do things for the good of the team—and not just the really talented guys. In fact, one of the things that made John Wooden such a successful basketball coach was his ability to reach his bench players and get them to perform. Wooden’s teams weren’t just about the five starters. The other seven guys made important contributions—and everyone knew it.

2. They Believe in Themselves

Great coaches are able to win others over to their way of thinking, a feat that wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t truly believe in themselves and possess the confidence that they can get the job done.

Former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is a great example. His players almost never saw him rattled, whether the team was leading by eight runs or losing by ten. In an interview with SUCCESS magazine, LaRussa said simply, “My job was to keep our whole staff at a level 10.” No matter what challenges he or his team ran up against, he remained steadfast and undeterred. “Some days you feel like a six because you are distracted,” LaRussa said. “You need to get to a 10.”

3. They Seek Opposing Ideas

Dictators have “yes men,” but great leaders seek differing opinions. Coaches often have mentors or confidants who are willing to tell them “no” and bring them back down to earth. Nick Saban and New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick both have said that their fathers played this role. Other top coaches, like Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, credits a former coach for his leadership style.

4. They Visualize Success

Don Yaeger is a 7-time New York Times bestselling author and former Sports Illustrated editor who’s spent his career researching greatness and leadership. What he found is summed up in his 16 Characteristics of Greatness—a road map for those who truly want to be successful. He says a key attribute of winning leaders is that they see themselves as winners, all the time.

"The greatest leaders in sports are able to visualize victory even before the game starts," Yaeger says.

But when it comes to success, “seeing” and “believing” are just part of the equation. What great coaches understand is that visualization must be backed up with real world hard work. Preparation only comes through practice, and men like Coach Wooden were willing to put in the work—and convince his players to do the same.

"I spent a lot of time with Coach Wooden,” Yaeger said. “He was never frazzled, and always seemed two steps ahead of everyone.”

“But more than that, [Wooden] was more prepared than anyone else in the room." Yaeger said.

Become a better leader by checking out STACK's page for Coaches and Trainers.

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