Defining Excellence – John Wooden Style

by Jeremy Powers on October 30, 2010

There is an episode of The Simpsons where the kids in town are trying to understand why Springfield hates Shelbyville.  Grandpa Simpson starts to explain the history, and Nelson yells at the other kids, “Quiet everyone!  An old man is talking.”

I think of that scene everytime I see a link to this John Wooden video.  If everyone (that is you) would just stop worrying and listen to this old leader, I think you all will feel a bit better. 


There are many good points in this video, but I am going to call attention to just three, in the order Coach Wooden mentions them in his talk.

Reputation vs. Character

Coach Wooden does a nice job of clarifying the difference between reputation and character.

Reputation is what you are percieved to be.

Character is what you really are.

I have been in business long enough to know many large firms are more concerned with their reputation than their character.  When I started working with small businesses this past spring, I hoped for more concern with character.  After 6 months or so of contracting, however, I would say the ratio of firms truly worried about their character versus worried about their reputation is about the same as in the large business environment. 

My challange to you is simple.  Take a look at your activities over the last week.  Review your meetings for the coming week.  How much time are you spending making your organization truly better?  How much time are you spending making your organization appear to be better?  This is not a question of innovation.  Innovation is just one way for you to improve your company.

Three Rules for Excellence

Three is a nice number.  Having three rules allows you to be inclusive of the main concerns while being memorable enough everyone in the organization can manage to learn them.  Here are the three rules Coach Wooden had for his players, to make them excellent:

1. Never be late

2. Not one word of profanity

3. Never criticize a teammate

You can see the brilliance of these three rules as it applies to college atheletes.  They are specific enough to work yet broad enough to cover most of the problems organizations have with young adults.  Does the leadership in your organization follow these three rules?  Very few executives I know follow these rules.  The executives that do follow these rules are the best I know.

Here is your second challenge:  Follow these three rules for the next week.

Winning is not about the scoreboard

You tell your kids, neices, and nephews “winning is about attitude” all the time.  You do not lead by example though.  If your organization’s greatest purpose is profit, change the organization or leave.  Here is Coach Wooden on winning:

You can lose when you out-score someone in a game.

You can win when you have been out-scored.

As you nod your head in agreement, take a minute to review the actions and attitudes of your team.  Do they act like winners, or are they too busy looking at the scoreboard?  (Is your team is reviewing the P&L more frequently than customer satisfaction ratings?)  What do you measure, and how do you measure it? 

Your last challenge:  Ask your teammates, in private, what each of them believes is your top concern for this year.

The Wooden Way

You might define excellence differently.  If you do, take the time to write down a definition, and make it one you aspire to be.  I like Coach Wooden’s approach, but I know it is not perfect.  (The man is a basketball coach, not a great philosopher of our time.)  If you have some simple rules your operate by, please share them in the comments.

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