Life & Leadership Lessons from the Sidelines

Known to be the most winning coach in NCAA Basketball, John Wooden (October 14, 1910 – June 4, 2010) also provided winning life lessons that can make all of us winners.  His maxims are enduring tenants for business and leadership.

One maxim was:

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Preparation is key to business. It is key to leadership.  I have worked with many senior executives who struggle to set aside time to prepare.  They move through business and through life “winging” it.  Some believe “winging” it works for them because they have been successful to date.  Others realize that preparation is very important, but they are so incredibly busy that they can’t figure out how to bring it into their schedule.  Here are a couple of different tools my clients use to support their preparation.

  1. Think time – Schedule time to look at the bigger picture, think more strategically, and prioritize.
    • Monthly: Schedule a 90 minute meeting with yourself to look at the bigger picture.  Review what’s been done and what’s to come. 
    • Weekly:  Schedule a 30 minute meeting to do a week in review and  figure out what needs prep-time and when it can be scheduled. 
    • Daily:  Schedule 5 minutes everyday to think about what must get done that day (or do it the evening before for the next day) and how those tasks fit into the bigger objectives of the business.
    • There is a much higher success rate in using this tool when clients literally schedule their “think time” on their calendars.  Those that don’t put it into their calendars tend to allow other “more important” things take precedence and they stay frustrated about not preparing as much as they say they want to prepare.
  2. Before walking into a conversation or a meeting take a moment to reflect on what you really want to accomplish.  Ask yourself, “what is the end result I want to achieve?”    This simple question can help you focus your thoughts and keep the discussion or meeting on track.  The biggest trap I’ve seen clients fall into is going into a meeting to talk about solutions only to end up stuck on finger pointing around the problem.  Staying focused on the desired end result can help to avoid that trap.

Another maxim:

Be quick, but don’t hurry.

What happens when you hurry?  I don’t know about you but, I know that when I hurry & when my clients hurry we tend to make mistakes. We get sloppy with our work.  It usually ends up costing us more time and money because whatever was done in a hurry has to be re-done or corrected.  This is why the book Smarter, Faster, Better devotes an entire section of the book to the idea of “Faster”.  To be quick you must actually slow down and stay focused.  Wooden knew this.  Seconds, in a basketball game, are a very long time.  If we slow down and really concentrate on the task we can be quick, and get the task done correctly, without hurrying.  Here are two exercises to help you really get a sense of how long time is:

  1. Sit up comfortably in a chair with your hands in your lap, and feet planted firmly on the ground.  Do not wear a watch.  Do not look at a clock.  Have someone time you for 60 seconds.  Do nothing and say nothing during that time.  Afterward, consider if it felt like one minute, or longer or shorter than one minute.
  2. Take a pile of unfolded clothes (preferably all the same item – t-shirts, towels, etc) time yourself (or have someone time you) folding the clothes for 60 seconds.   Fold as quickly and neatly  as possible.  When you are done debrief yourself by examining how much you completed in one minute’s time.  Was it more or less than you expected?  How did that minute compare to the minute in the first exercise?  Did it feel like the same, more, or less time?


Wooden also created a pyramid of success that he freely shared with all.  The official Wooden site makes it easy to view and download.


Look it over, examine it, reflect on it.  Find one or two things to focus on in your own leadership practice.  Commit to creating that focus within the next week.


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