Coach John Wooden challenged himself every day with constant self-improvement: Never be satisfied. Work constantly to improve. Perfection is a goal that can never be reached, but it must be the objective. The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast.
He believed that valid self-analysis is crucial for improvement. In order to improve a little each day, we must constantly be learning, and to do that, we must be observing constantly and stay open-minded.
A key component of Coach’s constant self-improvement program was how he worked with his assistant coaches. He encouraged them to challenge his ideas, thus creating the valid self-analysis he knew was critical to self-improvement.
In his book A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring with Don Yeager, Coach describes how Abraham Lincoln inspired his approach:
“An incredible example of Lincoln’s wisdom can be seen in the people with whom he chose to surround himself. I pride myself on having read just about every major book ever published about Abraham Lincoln, but the one that has affected me the most in recent years is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s exceptional text Team of Rivals. In this book, Goodwin examines in profound depth a well-documented but not widely discussed political decision: When Lincoln was elected to the presidency, he appointed a number of former political opponents to serve as his advisers and to fill various posts.
“By selecting men whom he knew disagreed with him or differed from his own platform, he assured himself, he would be confronted with legitimate challenges to his ideas, rather than finding himself in a pool of yes-men.
“Based on Lincoln’s example, I encouraged my assistant coaches to speak up with ideas that might differ from or even completely contradict my own. Those disagreements never got heated, but sometimes they were very intense. Just as I imagine Lincoln would have been, I was pleased when those challenges arose because it meant that my fellow coaches were as passionate about our team as I was. Nothing ruins a team more quickly than apathy.”
In Coach Wooden’s book Wooden on Leadership with Steve Jamison, Denny Crum, one of his former assistant coaches, describes working with Coach:
“Coach Wooden never thought he knew everything. In spite of the fact that he’d been winning championships every year—four or five of them when I got there as an assistant coach—he wanted to keep learning and improving as a coach and leader.
“When I came up with an idea, he would never tell me, ‘Well, this is the way we’ve always done it and we’re winning championships. So, no, I’m not changing.’ He was open to change. His approach was to listen; if he thought it made sense, try it. If it works, great. If not, move on. He was always searching for ways to improve.”
As Coach liked to say: A leader destined for success asks, “What can we do to improve?” A leader destined for failure says, “That’s the way it’s always been done.”