It is amazing how much can be accomplished with teamwork if no one is concerned who gets the credit. This idea was a central theme in Coach John Wooden’s leadership and coaching style.
Coach was adamant that you had to have great talent to win, but he was also quick to point out that that alone did not assure you of victory. The talent had to work together.
An unselfish team starts with a leader who gives away the credit when things go well and accepts the blame when they don’t.
In his book with Don Yeager, A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring, Coach explains this approach:
“As my father reminded me more than once, ‘Great leaders give credit to others and accept the blame themselves.’ If one of my assistant coaches made a suggestion that we decided to implement, I would make sure to praise him for his foresight in the press conference afterward. But if one made a suggestion that didn’t prove to be as successful, I accepted the blame myself rather than pinning it on the assistant. After all, as the head coach, I had decided to go forward with it. I found that this was the most effective way to keep my assistant coaches feeling engaged with the game, willing to make suggestions and ready to contribute to the betterment of the team. It worked with my players, too. I would never publicly criticize a player for poor performance. Even in moments of extreme frustration, I would check myself because it just didn’t seem right—because it didn’t seem like something my father would have done. And I’m proud to say that to the best of my knowledge, I never did slip up in that regard.”
In the book The Essential Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described his former Coach this way:
“We understood that if we played up to the standard he had set in practice, we’d probably win. If not, if we lost, he took the blame and tried to fix it the next practice. He was very focused, very intense. Always, always with his emotions under control.”
And Coach Wooden had this to say about Kareem:
“Lewis Alcindor (later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) believed the team came first. I told him, ‘Lewis, I can design a system that will make you the greatest scorer in the history of college basketball.’ Lewis said, ‘I wouldn’t want that, Coach.’ (Of course, I knew he would say that, or I wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place.) A great player who is not a team player is not a great player. Lewis Alcindor was a great team player. Why? Because his first priority was the success of the team, even at the expense of his own statistics.”
It seems like it was very difficult to get either one of these men to take any credit.
Together with the coaching staff, trainers, managers and great teammates, they accomplished amazing things: three consecutive national championships.
Related: The Qualities of a Humble Leader
As Coach Wooden’s grandson-in-law, Craig Impelman had the opportunity to learn Coach’s teachings firsthand and wrote about those lessons for his site, www.woodenswisdom.com. He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.