John Wooden and the Power of Virtue in Leadership

This is a guest post by Michael Lee Stallard. He is the president of E Pluribus Partners and the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity. (You can download the digital book free.) If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

Even though we’ve lost a great coach and teacher with John Wooden’s death, he left a legacy that that is especially relevant today: his virtuous leadership style.

A Basketball and Whistle Against a Blackboard - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #4077159

Photo courtesy of ©

Let me put this in context. Consider two recent data points. In 2009, a research report from the Corporate Executive Board showed that 75 percent of American workers were not engaged and giving their best efforts at work. Of the 25 percent who were engaged, 60 percent were not aligning their behavior with organizational goals.

When you net these statistics out, a whopping 90 percent of employees were not aligned and giving their best efforts. Another well-respected research organization, The Conference Board, released a report in January this year that stated employee satisfaction was at an alarming all-time low and the decline began long before the great recession.

Additional research has shown that an employee’s rational and emotional connection to his supervisor is one of the most important factors affecting employee engagement. Just reading the accounts of Wooden’s former players one can see they felt connected to him in two distinct ways.

First, they respected his knowledge and skill as a basketball coach. This reflects a rational connection.

Second—and what really set Wooden apart—was that they could feel he cared for them as human beings. Wooden once said he became closer to some of his players who weren’t starters because he wanted them to know he valued them. Feeling connected to their coach helped keep the non-starters fired up.

Evidence of Wooden’s care for each and every one of his players is illustrated in this remarkable story.

When Wooden returned from the Navy following World War II to become athletic director and head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College, his 1946–47 team received a post-season invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) national play-offs. After the coach learned that Clarence Walker, a young African-American, second-string guard on his team, would not be allowed to participate in the tournament because of his race, Wooden declined the offer.

The college basketball world was stunned. (Remember, this is more than two decades before the Civil Rights Act was passed in America.) You can be sure that Wooden faced a considerable amount of criticism and pressure to cave in and go to the tournament.

The following season NAIB officials invited Indiana State again, and this time decided they would allow Clarence to play, provided he didn’t stay at the hotel with his teammates and wouldn’t be seen publicly with them. Once again the coach declined.

Wooden and his wife Nell thought of all the young men on the team as extended members of their family whom they loved, and the coach wasn’t about to allow Clarence to be humiliated. But Clarence and his family saw it in a different light. They were excited about the opportunity for him to become the first African-American player in history to participate in the prestigious tournament.

So they, along with officials from the NAACP, approached the coach to persuade him that attending the tournament would help, not hurt, Clarence and other African-American players. The coach decided to accept the NAIB’s offer, and the team packed up to head to the play-offs in Kansas City.

On their way to the tournament, the team bus stopped for meals. If a restaurant wouldn’t serve Clarence, the coach would make the team get back on the bus. Often the team had to pick up food at grocery stores along the way and eat on the bus.

When Clarence finally walked onto the basketball court to warm up, he appeared to be nearly paralyzed with fear. Many people in the crowd spotted the courageous young man, and they began to applaud. Clarence Walker became the first African-American player to participate in the NAIB play-offs, and Indiana State made it to the finals, where they lost to Louisville.

Because of Clarence’s courage and his coach’s resolve to stand up for what he believed in, the NAIB tournament was finally opened to African-American student-athletes. The following season three teams brought African-American players with them to the tournament.

Wooden also stood up for other people who had less power and status. He watched out for the student managers on the UCLA men’s basketball team by making his players pick up their own towels and trash in the locker room after games rather than expecting the student managers to clean up after the players.

Periodically, Wooden himself would pick up a mop and work along side the student managers to clean the floors of the basketball court which showed that no position on the team was beneath the great coach. Wooden expected his players to respect and be courteous to flight attendants, hotel, and wait staff workers when they traveled. He taught the players that “you are as good as anyone, but no better than anyone.”

Do you think the nation’s best team-oriented players and their parents wanted their sons to play for Wooden after they learned stories like these? If you were a player wouldn’t you want to give your best effort and follow a coach like that?

Wooden reflected “virtuous leadership” that made his players and fans feel connected to him both rationally (for his skill as a coach) and emotionally (for his virtues of respect, fairness, empathy and humility). If American leaders become intentional about developing these and other virtues in themselves, the leaders and the people they lead, 90 percent of people in the American workplace would be doing the right things and giving their best efforts rather than the 10 percent who are today.

All the economic stimulus in the world will not save America if we fail to stimulate virtue and virtuous leadership. If we do become intentional about developing virtuous employees, leaders, and organizations, then America’s productivity, rate of innovation, and global reputation will soar.

Question: Do you have a story about the power of virtue in leadership? Please share it in the comments below.
Get My New, 3-Part Video Series—FREE! Ready to accomplish more of what matters? 2015 can be your best year ever. In my new video series, I show you exactly how to set goals that work. Click here to get started. It’s free—but only until Monday, December 8th.

Get my FREE video series now!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • patriciazell

    As a high school English teacher, one of my main goals is to engage my students. Without that engagement, they will never maximize their learning. I carefully watch their reactions to what I present. I've learned two major "lessons" for engagement: my students enjoy working on big projects as long as they are broken down into doable steps and my students want their work to be relevant to their lives. Also, I make it a point to interact with my kids on a personal level because I have found that if they like me, they will work for me.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I think this is true in the workplace as well. Thanks.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention John Wooden and the Power of Virtue in Leadership --

  • perryh031

    Great post. Thanks for sharing about Coach Wooden and the many, many lessons he taught on leadership and living. I was positively affected by coach Wooden and I never met him. That to me is the power of a life well lived. His legacy will reach out to generations. What a great example. I share my story of what the coach taught me, and I hope will teach others at

  • Ben Lichtenwalner

    An excellent post, thank you for sharing Michael.

    This reminded me of one of the greatest servant leaders and examples of virtuous leadership in recent history – Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher's servant leadership example of helping ground crews load bags on Thanksgiving day remains one of the greatest examples of virtuous leadership. He cared for his people – employees and customers – so much that he often expressed it as "LUV" (the company's stock symbol). I agree, we need more great leaders like Wooden and Kelleher in America.

  • Michael Lee Stallard

    Patricia, Perry and Ben,

    Reading your comments made me think of the importance of the character strengths of love, empathy, compassion, respect and humility. They provide the bridge that enable leaders to develop an emotional connection with others who then are more likely to trust and want to follow them. The personal interactions Patricia has with her students reflect these character strengths. Helping students learn and grow does this too. John Wooden did this. Ben, thanks for mentioning Herb Kelleher. What a great example. You'll enjoy this article about Kelleher written by one of America's outstanding business journalists, Joe Nocera:

  • Rick Yuzzi

    A great example of servant leadership. Thanks for the post.

  • Michael Lee Stallard

    Not sure why the link aboveto the article on Herb Kelleher didn’t work. Let’s try again.

  • John Bergquist

    Woodens character stories remind me of one of my heroes Major Dick Winters of the Band of Brothers E Company fame. After reading his biography and all of the stories written about him I was inspired to live out a more virtueous example in mynown leadership. It takes stories like the Wooden ones to keep motivated to be the kind of leaders that make this world a better place and I think foster an environment that multiplies good leaders. I can only imagine how many young people today are great leaders because of Wooden’s example. Thanks for spuring us on this morning. I am looking forward to reading the free ebook as well.

    • Michael Lee Stallard


      Great point you make and one that I recommend in the book you can download above. One section of the book has inspiring stories of 20 great leaders of nations, businesses, social sector organizations, churches and sports teams who connected with the people they led.


  • Jim Ordway

    The statistics are alarming, 75% not engaged is a call for better leadership. Some of the best leaders I have had the opportunity to work for were able to roll up their sleeves and perform. Too many leaders within organizations have made the choice to lead via emails and meetings, sending the message that the work being performed is beneath them.

    A good litmus test: Is the leadership trying to make the workforce look good, and vice-versa, or are they in it for themselves?

    I really enjoyed this post, some good thinking points to start the day.

    • Michael Lee Stallard


      I couldn't agree more! David Neeleman, founder and former CEO of Jet Blue, was a great example of this. One day each week he traveled on Jet Blue flights and served passengers, loaded luggage and cleaned trash on the plane along with his crew.


  • Daniel Decker

    Great thoughts here. Reminds me of a quote from Erwin McManus that I love… "The world doesn’t need better leaders, the world needs better people who lead."

    • Michael Hyatt

      That's a fantastic quote. Love it!

      • decidere

        Fantastic quote indeed!

      • Daniel Decker

        I try to remind myself of that every day. If I just focus on being the best I can be and glorifying God in everything I do, everything else will take care of itself. :)

  • Kymberly

    Thanks for this! What strikes me about Wooden's leadership is his humility. He chose character over popularity, humbled himself and did what was right, and because of that he was influential to countless people. The influence that Wooden had on his players and all those around him is an example to us all.

  • Colin_Faulkner

    Great post and thanks for letting Michael share. These stores are great and among the ones that not many people know about. Wooden is one of a kind and someone who I strive to be more like. Although his accomplishments as a athlete and coach will never be matched, it was who he was as a person that was more impressive. I wrote a blog about him this weekend and also complied over 50 of his quotes, maxims, and "Woodenisms."One of his best quotes:
    “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior.”
    John Wooden is one of the greatest leaders of our time.

    • Michael Hyatt

      That is a great quote. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Pete Speer

    Virtuous leadership starts within the family at home and then extends to the workplace. Coach Wooden combined the best attributes of leadership. The anecdotes which we hear combine familial love and earned authority — leadership which is inculcated in his charges — useful knowledge to be carried long past the games (the execution of the tasks at hand) and into the reverberations of life. The dependence on virtue becomes independence.

    But it all starts with the family structure — the most effective and efficient level of governance. As a nation we have over time weakened that bond through the emphasis on the individual by the political structure. The latter favors dependence, not independence, emphasizes rights to the detriment of civic duties. Worst, it does not have the moral authority to demand virtue — something only the family and people like John Wooden have.

    This, not terrorism or external force is the greatest threat to the Republic.

    • Michael Lee Stallard


      So true. Take a look at the summary of the "Hardwired to Connect" research at this link:

      Some of the most prominent experts in adolescent development concluded in this research that many of America's children and adolescents are experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression because they are not living in cultures (including at the family level) that develop connections with others and with moral and spiritual meaning. Check out the link to the video on the left side of the page at above link and you will find an excellent presentation by the lead researcher from Dartmouth Medical School.


  • Cyberquill

    Since I have no academic degrees nor marketable skills (or skill to market the ones I may have), I spent most of my working life waiting tables. To date, I got fired a grand total of twelve times, which means I've served under quite a few leaders in quite a few companies (I guess a restaurant is a "company" of sorts). I've met horrible managers who were clueless how to lead, and I've met a few good ones. The problem with leading employees like myself is that when I'm at work, all I want is the money, for if it weren't for the money, I wouldn't be there in the first place. How to motivate workers like me who simply don't like what they do for a living? (the phrase "don't like" defined as "would quite instantly if they won a million bucks in the lottery")

    I'm guessing that most members of the national workforce don't like what they do for a living, because I can't imagine that most of them would keep showing up for work if they won a million bucks in the lottery.

    Unless a person has an intrinsic affinity for they work they do, how do you motivate such person other than by threatening to cut of their income, i.e., fire them, if they don't perform at a certain level?

    • Cyberquill

      Correction: would QUIT (not "quite") instantly if they won a million bucks in the lottery. (You see, I can't even spell. Go figure.)

    • Michael Hyatt

      Perhaps this is a stupid question, but why do you work in jobs you hate? Why don't you either get a degree or acquire marketable skills? It seem to me that like is too short to spend so much time doing something we hate.

      • Cyberquill

        Because realistically, there's no money in what I really want to do, and even if I got a degree and developed marketable skills, I wouldn't be particularly happy in whatever I'd be doing, simply because I'd have to set my first love aside. Somehow, going from unbearable to so-so-bearable doesn't strike me as much of an improvement. The "nice" thing about working jobs I hate is the unambiguous clarity with which I hate them. I can't really get hopped up about the lukewarm neither-here-nor-there-but-I-guess-it's-sort-of-OK approach to anything, whether applied to work or life in general.

    • Michael Lee Stallard

      At a minimum, a manager can so to at that you are respected as a human being, recognized for contributions you make and develop a collaborative and friendly environment where every feels a sense of belonging. In addition, you can be given autonomy to do your work. The foregoing will at least keep you from being do-motivated. Because you are in a job you have no interest in, a manager is not likely going to be able to help you learn and grow professionally or provide a sense of meaning from your work. It's possible that you might experienced a sense of meaning from the relationships at work, provided there is a healthy social environment.

      From your comment below, I completely appreciate the economic dilemma. I changed careers in 2002 to write, speak and teach in the area of leadership and corporate culture. Not a good economic move but something I believe I had to do. Perhaps you can pursue what you really want to do on the side for the time being and one day shift to focus on it full-time.

      Best wishes,

      • Michael Lee Stallard

        Oops! That should be "At a minumum, a manager can see to it that ….
        Also, "every" should be "everyone" and "do-motivated" should be "de-motivated"
        Guess I better retire for the night before I set some a record for typos!

  • Billy Moyer

    Great post about an amazing human being. John Wooden was the ultimate leader. We can all learn so much from him. A virtuous leader is not only that way in the workplace, but in their personal life as well. John Wooden wrote a love letter to his wife every month after she passed away in 1986. His love for her and for everyone is a perfect example of the virtuous leader. We should all strive to be like John Wooden. Great post, Mike! Thank you for the inspiring words!

    • Michael Lee Stallard


      I'm glad you liked it. You bring up a good point about living a divided life. Oftentimes it becomes a lonely life too. I know from experience and wrote an essay about it for's Amazon Shorts entitled "Alone No Longer." Here's the link:

      Thanks for mentioning Wooden's love for his wife Nell. So encouraging to see that, isn't it? I thought it was wonderful that when UCLA wanted to rename its basketball arena in the great coach's honor, Wooden insisted they include his wife's name and place it ahead of his. So the "Pauley Pavilion" became the "Nell and John Wooden Court." One of my favorite sports writers, Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, shares a very touching story about John Wooden's love for Nell at this link:

      All the best to you,

  • JLJ

    Virtue is important indeed :)

    Luke 6:38
    Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

    Believe those words and surf on over to Click on a link or two. It costs nothing but it sure will help a fellow brother out so he can continue helping others.

    Spread the word to other brothers and sisters. Be blessed.

  • Brandon

    This is a very cool post… I was watching ESPN the other day and saw all the stories about John Wooden. Everytime I see a person who has that much of an impact on someone's life, it causes me to think- "What would it be like when I'm gone?" I sure want to make a lasting impression on others around me. I want ot be remembered as someone who was a servant for Jesus and a person who wanted to see God's kingdom amplified!

  • Darren Poke

    Living in Australia, Coach Wooden isn’t as well known, but after his recent passing, I found some great quotes from him that epitomised the terrific, insightful leader that he was:

    I aspire to be a great leader like him. Thanks for your post, I found it helpful.

  • Pingback: Fired Up or Burned Out | Joseph M. Cole()

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention John Wooden and the Power of Virtue in Leadership --

  • Pingback: Leadership Style « Shuler Nation()