Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on John Wooden — one of the best basketball players on one of the best coaches

December 20, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Fitness, Leadership

You can learn a lot about leadership from what great leaders say about people who led them. I’ll show a video of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his college coach, John Wooden, and then describe how it teaches a lot about leadership — specifically motivating others.

First a few words on each.

Who are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Wooden?

Abdul-Jabbar ranks among the best basketball players (and athletes of any sport) ever. According to Wikipedia’s page on him, he

was a record six-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), a record 19-time NBA All-Star, a 15-time All-NBA selection, and an 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. A member of six NBA championship teams as a player and two as an assistant coach, Abdul-Jabbar twice was voted NBA Finals MVP. In 1996, he was honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. NBA coach Pat Riley and player Isiah Thomas have called him the greatest basketball player of all time.

John Wooden ranks among the best basketball coaches (and coaches of any sport) ever. According to Wikipedia’s page on him, he

won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period—seven in a row—as head coach at UCLA, an unprecedented feat. Within this period, his teams won a record 88 consecutive games. He was named national coach of the year six times. … As a player, Wooden was the first to be named basketball All-American three times, and he won a Helms Athletic Foundation National Championship at Purdue. … Wooden was named a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player (inducted in 1961) and as a coach (in 1973), the first person ever enshrined in both categories. … One of the most revered coaches in the history of sports, Wooden was beloved by his former players, among them Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Wooden was renowned for his short, simple inspirational messages to his players, including his “Pyramid of Success”. These often were directed at how to be a success in life as well as in basketball… Wooden was named The Sporting News “Greatest Coach of All Time”.

Abdul-Jabbar on Wooden

The text of what Abdul-Jabbar said

I care about my readers so much I transcribed the text for you.

It’s hard to talk about Coach Wooden simply because he was a complex man, but he taught in a very simple way: he used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation. Any success that I’ve had as a parent, I have to give Coach Wooden credit for showing me how it was done.

He didn’t expect much from us. He just wanted us to do what he did, which was to get our education and learn how to compete according to the rules. It made a big difference to us that he never expected us to do anything that he didn’t do. But then again he graduated from Purdue on time and was a consensus All-American, so he set quite an example and it made it possible to understand that we could do it. It took some work and he showed us how to do it.

He was more like a parent than a coach. He was a selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn’t let us do that.

What we can learn from it

Four points of his teach a lot about leadership.

First, note the size of the effect Wooden had on him and compare it with the effects leaders have had on you or that you have had on your reports:

Any success that I’ve had as a parent, I have to give Coach Wooden credit for showing me how it was done.

Any success he’s had as a parent!

Not just some success but any, and not for just basketball but for parenting, which even for a great like him, I have to assume he valued more. What leader doesn’t want their leadership skills to evoke such reverence decades after leading them, after they’ve been led by other great leaders and gone to yet more greatness?

This statement adds gravity to everything else he says in the video and shows how much you can influence someone you lead.

Second, note that he appreciated his coach not just for his leadership in the sport, but to any situation. I believe this quote reveals a valuable point for anyone aspiring to become a great leader:

He used sports to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation.

Though many people advise connecting tasks to higher purposes (or greater meaning, value, or importance, which I’ve come to collectively call MVIP) to motivate teams, I think this quote improves on that advice. Since everyone finds MVIP in different places, you don’t know what different people consider higher MVIP. Different people at different times most highly value family, freedom, their country, religion, work, hobbies, and so on. You can only learn another’s MVIP from them.

It seems more important to motivate people is to connect tasks to personal MVIP. To those you lead, personal MVIP will feel like higher MVIP.

Why specify the difference between higher and personal MVIP if it feels the same to the person you motivate?

I differentiate for two reasons. First, it motivates you, the leader, differently. Finding personal MVIP forces you to learn about the person you’re motivating. You have to learn what they value and why. It motivates you to put their interests above yours when you think of how to motivate them. Second, it decreases the risk you’ll try to impose your MVIP on them. Imposing your values on others generally feels to the others like being judged. When your values differ, you provoke debate and discourage following — that is, you do the opposite of leading.

Just because you consider something a higher calling doesn’t mean someone else does.

Wooden valued Christianity highly and used it in his coaching, but since Abdul-Jabbar valued Wooden’s teaching so highly despite converting to Islam, I expect Wooden didn’t impose his values on Abdul-Jabbar. I expect he came to understood what Abdul-Jabbar valued and worked with that. Wooden’s apparently modest goal of helping Abdul-Jabbar apply himself to situations better probably resulted in more effective leadership.

Third, note which order Abdul-Jabbar states what Wooden imparted.

to get our education and learn how to compete according to the rules

Get an education first, learn to compete second. Maybe there was no meaning behind the ordering, but combined with his not saying the word “basketball” once in the quote, I believe Abdul-Jabbar felt he got more MVIP from Wooden’s coaching education and life lessons than from coaching basketball, however important basketball was to both. I believe this ordering illustrates that Wooden found ways to understand his players and coach them for what they valued personally more than what he valued.

Fourth, note what that motivation led to:

We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn’t let us do that.

He learned about what most kids wanted to skip. Do you get the idea the things he worked hardest on, that kept him from just having fun, he valued most? And that that work won his championships over teams with players who didn’t do that work?

Leaders who motivate people to do what others don’t create winning teams.

I think these four lines, of all the things Abdul-Jabbar could have said decades after being coached by Wooden, after winning awards and accolades few others have matched in any sport, reveal a heart and core of leadership that motivates people to work beyond what others would and then thank the leader for motivating them to work so hard.

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