John Wooden on Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind

John Wooden on Values victory and peace of mind

“Those who depend on dreams, they live in a dream world,” says Coach John Wooden. He's making a point about putting in the work, what he calls industriousness.

Wooden was a player, and then became a leader. One of the striking distinctions of his leadership style is that he embodied the principles he taught his players. They were hard-earned and tested throughout his life—and that of the players who worked with him during his career.

His stories are gems filled with pearls of wisdom. Krista Tippett offers an honest definition of wisdom in her book Becoming Wise: and Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. She says, “The presence of wisdom is an embodied capacity to hold power and tenderness in a surprising creative interplay.” Coach Wooden is a supreme example of it.

With love, peace of mind gained through self-satisfaction knowing that we never cease to be the best we can be, which us and us alone know, and character as some the things he most valued during his life, it's not surprising he was able to get his start “playing in dirt, without getting dirty,” to paraphrase him.

He believed in the power of learning from others and the tenderness of making the most out of what we have. He had the ability to cut through the noise and get to the truth of any moment by being deeply there, in service to his team, family, colleagues, and friends. This was his longest conversation, which carried him from youth to his death in 2010.

Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court captures the simple stories born of alertness and observation. He was available in response to life and made the best of things with poise. In his definition this means “just being oneself without letting outside pressure hurt us.”

The most important part of his work and legacy, in addition to the lives he touched directly, is his philosophy on success, which he distilled into a pyramid. He viewed success as distinct from winning, because things are going to turn out as they should, and good things take time.

Faith and patience are the virtues that hold his system of thinking together.

In John Wooden, Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind, he takes us through each block of the success pyramid in the order in which he conceived it, illustrating each point with stories. The picture comes alive through the interviews with former students.


In plain and simple English this means hard work. Very hard work. There is no substitute for very hard work when it comes to success.

I have not known, heard of, or read about any individual anywhere who achieved real success without working extremely hard. In fact, the great successes we all know about are individuals who almost always have greatly outworked their competition.

Grantland Rice, a sportswriter and poet, understood this fundamental characteristic of achievement. He described it in his poem “How To Be a Champion.”

“You wonder how they do it, You look to see the knack. You watch the foot in action, Or the shoulder of the back. But when you spot the answer, Where the higher glamours lurk, You'll find in moving higher, Up the laurel-covered spire, That most of it is practice, And the rest of it is work.”


The two cornerstones of my Pyramid of Success, Industriousness and Enthusiasm, provide strength individually but much more strength when combined as one.

I described Industriousness: very hard work. But hard work is not enough. It must be ignited, lit afire by something that will raise it to the extraordinary level required for success. That 'something' is your Enthusiasm which infuses hard work with inspired power that all great competitors have.

Your heart must be in your work. Your energy and Enthusiasm stimulates those you work with. It is the ingredient that transforms Industriousness into something of great magnitude – the engine that powers all blocks of the Pyramid. It is why I chose Industriousness and Enthusiasm as the cornerstones of my Pyramid of Success. It is where everything begins.

Enthusiasm is contagious, it spills into love. Wooden says, “love isn't love until you give it away.”

In the middle of the base of the pyramid are the qualities that include others —friendship, loyalty, and cooperation. Wooden placed loyalty at the center because it is the critical conversation we should have in organizations. Leaders who are worthy of it are capable of demonstrating they care. In those companies, there is no limit for better.


The two qualities of Friendship that are so important are respect and camaraderie. To me these are the most noteworthy characteristics of true Friendship as it pertains to leadership. Think how much you'll give when asked to do so by someone you respect and with whom you share camaraderie. You will give plenty, all you've got.

Thus, I sought and valued these two particular qualities of Friendship in my relationship with individuals on the UCLA men's basketball team. I did not seek their affection nor wish to become buddies. Mutual respect and camaraderie strengthen your team. Affection, in fact, may weaken it by tempting you to play favorites.

Where Friendship exists you will find the makings of a formidable organization. That is why it is in the foundation of my Pyramid.


Loyalty is part of our higher nature and it is also part of the nature of leaders who achieve higher goals. The power of Loyalty is the reason I placed it in the center of the Pyramid's foundation.

A leader who has Loyalty is the leader whose team I wish to be a part of. This is true almost everywhere. Most people, the overwhelming majority of us, wish to be in an organization or part of a team whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration.


Sharing ideas, information, responsibilities, creativity and tasks is a priority of good leadership and great teams. This is Cooperation. (The only thing that is not shared is blame. A strong self-confident leader gives credit to others, when deserved, and takes blame. A weak leader takes credit and gives blame.)

You are not the only person with good ideas. Others too have brains. In order to reach your organization's full potential there must be Cooperation.

Two strong field horses could not pull an empty baby carriage if they work at cross purposes. The carriage will not budge unless there is Cooperation.

Loyalty from the top inspires Loyalty from below. It is a most precious and powerful commodity and it starts with the leader.

What kind of leader do we want to be? Does our behavior align with how we think we cooperate with our team?

In the next row of the pyramid Wooden put “things we learn after we think we know it all,” self-control, intentness, alertness, and initiative.


Getting to the top and staying there (somewhat different tasks) present unique and formidable challenges. To do either requires great Self-Control. This characteristic within the Pyramid of Success addresses the importance of controlling yourself in all areas – avoiding temptations, avoiding emotionalism, avoiding peaks and valleys of effort.

I viewed Self-Control, both personal and by our team, as a sixth Bruin on the court during my years at UCLA. That invisible sixth player was as important as any of the visible players. 

I like to remind those under my supervision: “Control yourself so others won't have to do it for you.”


This personal quality may be as important as any within the Pyramid. It is the ability to stay the course even when that course is most difficult and the obstacles seem insurmountable. You do not quit: Intentness.

Be persistent. Be determined. Be tenacious. Be unrelenting. The road to achievement is rocky, hard, and long. Things easily achieved are rarely long-lasting or significant.

If you have Intentness and your ability warrants it you will eventually reach the top of the Pyramid.


My favorite American hero is Abraham Lincoln. Abe had Alertness. Mr. Lincoln once said that he never met a person from whom he did not learn something although most of the time it was something not to do.

There is activity going on around us at all times from which we can acquire knowledge if we have Alertness. Too often we get tunnel vision and don't see the full picture which precludes learning things that are available.

Basketball is played as much between the ears – Alertness – as between the lines on the court. This is true in life and business. Alertness is that asset that keeps you awake and perceptive and increases Skill. The driver who's asleep at the wheel will crash. The same happens to organizations lacking Alertness: they will crash.


Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all. Initiative is the ability to act. Simple as that. You must prepare thoroughly in all ways. If you have done that you must then summon the wherewithal to apply Initiative.

Failure happens. None of us is perfect but you must train yourself not to fear failure. Fear instead inaction when it is time to act.

This is true in all areas of life. Proper preparation must be followed with Initiative. As I reminded myself and others often: “Be quick, but don't hurry.” That's a good motto for Initiative.

The next row is the expression of our work, where he says, “much can be accomplished if you don't worry  about who gets the credit” — condition, skill, and team spirit. Condition includes a mental as well as moral dimension. Here, too, the quality of effort expended pays better dividends.

Skill is a lifelong process of knowing our stuff and mastering the details. Wooden talks about substituting the term “willingness” with “eagerness” when it comes to going for it— words matter.


You must be in physical Condition, but you must also have mental and moral Condition. All three are components in this block of the Pyramid because you can't have one without the others. Weak mental or moral Condition precludes top physical Condition.

Some observers felt that our players had top physical Condition. That was only part of it. They also had top mental and moral Condition.

I reminded them, the players, of their responsibility to achieve Condition with this little rhyme:

“There is a choice you have to make, In everything you do.
So keep in mind that in the end, The choice you make makes you.”

If you make the right choices you will achieve Condition.


At the very center of the Pyramid of Success is Skill. You have to know your stuff and that includes a mastery of details.

This is true whether you're an athlete, a surgeon, or a CEO. You'd better be able to execute properly and quickly and that requires Skill. As much as I value experience, and I value it greatly, I'd rather have a lot of Skill and less experience that the other way around.

Mastery of the skills you need in your job requires learning and it is why leaders and those who are high achievers are lifelong learners. I had this motto tacked on my office wall for many years: “It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Skill is an ongoing and lifelong process.

Team Spirit

This block of the Pyramid addresses a most important characteristic: selflessness which is the opposite of selfishness. I mean by this that you are eager to sacrifice personal glory or gain for the greater good, namely, the welfare and success of your organization, your team, your group.

For me it meant I was constantly searching for that player who would make our team 'great' rather than a someone who was just a 'great player'. There is a big difference and that difference is what constitutes Team Spirit.

I did not want a person on our team who was reluctant to sacrifice for the good of the team. I prized the individual who was eager to sacrifice for our common good.

Hedging toward the top, he placed poise, confidence, and at the very top competitive greatness, as in doing our best when it's needed the most. As organizations, we build collective confidence each time we deliver on our promises.


Just be yourself. Don't pretend to be what you are not. Don't get rattled, thrown off or unbalanced regardless of the circumstance or situation. Leaders with Poise do not panic under pressure.

Poise means holding fast to your principles and beliefs and acting in accordance with them regardless of how bad (or good) the situation may be. Know who you are and be true to yourself.

Those with Poise have a brave heart in all circumstances. Poise is a powerful gift you give yourself when you acquire the qualities of the Pyramid in the supporting tiers beneath it.


There is no stronger steel than well-founded belief in yourself; the knowledge that your preparation is fully complete and that you are ready for the competition.

Confidence cannot be grafted on artificially. True abiding confidence is earned through tenaciously pursuing and attaining those assets that allow you to reach your own level of competency; that is, excellence.

You must monitor Confidence because it can easily turn into arrogance which then can lead to the mistaken and destructive belief that previous achievement will be repeated without the same hard effort that brought it about in the first place.

Competitive Greatness

Competitive Greatness is having a real love for the hard battle knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required.

The great competitors I have played for and against, taught and admired all shared a joy in the struggle itself – the journey, the contest and competition. The tougher the battle the better.

A leader must convey this to those you lead: a tough fight can bring forth Competitive Greatness. The hard battle inspires and motivates a great competitor to dig deep inside. That's why I relish the challenge a worthy competitor presents. You are tested. When properly prepared you will rise to your highest level and achieve Competitive Greatness.

Rising up he did. John Wooden's UCLA basketball dynasty won an incredible ten national championships, seven of them in consecutive years producing perfect season after perfect season. Yet for John Robert Wooden winning was never his standard for success.

How you win or lose is the ultimate test. Below Coach John Wooden teaches his powerful values-based philosophy of how to achieve competitive greatness in sports, business and life. When we figure out a way to make the most of what we have, we are lucky.


The Pyramid of Success contains his formula for achieving this highest victory, for winning the Wooden way. Appearing in interviews to speak of how much they learned from Wooden are Phil Jackson, Bill Walton, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and more.

For more on the pyramid of success and its value to leadership, read Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization, The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership, and Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court.

John Wooden, Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind is also available to own.