Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success

"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

- Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, page 12

By anyone’s definition Coach John R. Wooden was a success. He is best known as the Head Coach who led UCLA basketball teams to capture 10 NCAA championships in a 12 year period and an unprecedented seven consecutive championship victories. In 40 years of coaching high school and college basketball, his teams won more than 80 percent of their games. That’s impressive! John Wooden was also a devoted family man, a man of faith and at his core, a teacher and a student of life.

Like the pyramids of old, Coach Wooden’s ‘pyramid of success’ (hereafter referred to as the pyramid) did not arise overnight but took years of research, reflection and refinement to build. The imagery associated with pyramids – a wide foundation layered with rows of sloping blocks rising to form a peak in the sky, solid and stable over time – is well suited to illustrate the 25 timeless personal qualities that Coach Wooden believed would guide anyone to success.

Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is strongly grounded in spiritual elements and scripture references, however one doesn’t have to be a person of faith to benefit from the wisdom contained within the pages. You do have to have a willingness to reflect on how you currently execute the fundamentals described in each block of the pyramid along with the ‘mortar’ qualities that help those fundamentals stick together and then think about how to apply those principles more consistently in your work and personal life.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Bring Your ‘A’ Game

"Competitive Greatness…It’s not about winning. It’s about learning to give all we have to give."
- Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, page 87

The peak, the uppermost block in the pyramid is competitive greatness which Wooden describes as being at your best when your best is needed and the enjoyment of a difficult challenge. He is clear that the scoreboard is merely one measure of the outcome of a game noting you can score more points than the other team and still lose, and you can lose a game and still come out a winner. Athletes describe this as “leaving it all on…the ice…the field…the court”.

How often can you say you’ve given a task all you had to give? That you brought your ‘A’ game attitude and work ethic to the items on your daily to do list. I suspect that all too often we give only what we deem is necessary and sufficient – a good enough effort. We may work hard and long, but that is not the same as giving all we have to give.

Stop and consider the impact you could have if you made the commitment to give each task in your day all you have to give. If you listened to your partner or child’s dilemma with an open mind and heart. If you took the time to research potential solutions to the supply chain bottleneck before the troubleshooting meeting. If you rehearsed that sales presentation multiple times before meeting with the client instead of winging it. Even if the results are less than stellar, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t hold back – you gave it your all. That is the success Coach Wooden wishes for you.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Be Enthusiastic

"If we don’t enjoy what we do, we won’t be able to push as hard as we need to push for as long as we need to push to achieve our best."
- Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, page 34

Enthusiasm is one of the foundational cornerstones of the pyramid (the other one is industriousness). I think Coach Wooden chose enthusiasm as a foundational building block because of its dual influence – enthusiasm not only sustains us during our quest for success, it rubs off on those around us. I’m sure you can think of times when someone’s unbridled enthusiasm for a project or activity inspired you and other members of the team to roll up your proverbial sleeves and pitch in (most likely with a smile on your face). We’ve also experienced the opposite – someone who seemed to suck the life out of a project because of their negativity and lack of enthusiasm. When given a choice – who would you rather be? A team booster or a party pooper?

Adopting a mental ‘can do’ attitude and embracing your day with enthusiasm is similar to turning on the lights in a dark room. It brightens the space and makes it easier to see things clearly. The room might be a dingy, messy space that needs cleaning and painting yet approaching the task with enthusiasm for what it will become makes it easier to bear down and tackle the myriad steps in the renovation process.

Try it yourself. Adopt a positive, enthusiastic attitude towards the next task you are undertaking. Look for the upsides and consider how you can achieve those outcomes in a fun and supportive way.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Take Initiative

"Initiative is having the courage to make decisions and take action. People with initiative move forward without fear of failure, even though they might make mistakes or fail."
- Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, page 58

I have always associated initiative with action and intrinsic motivation. I don’t think I have ever consciously acknowledged that overcoming fear is a prerequisite for action and yet it makes sense. Fear of failure causes us to pause before acting or to not act at all. This is a by-product of associating failure with our self-image (“I’m no good”) instead of viewing failure as a learning opportunity (“Well that didn’t work out like I thought”).

Coach Wooden believed that his players would not reach their full potential (as athletes, as students, as citizens) if they were afraid of making mistakes, afraid of failing. He wanted his players to be pushing against the walls of [their] capabilities and viewing mistakes as learning opportunities. Like the butterfly that pushes against the walls of its cocoon to break free and take flight, we need to push against our fear of failure and learn to take action even when there is no guarantee of success. As Yoda told Luke – “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is in many ways simply good old-fashioned common sense. Just as athletes must practice the fundamentals of their sport continuously and deliberately before they can dazzle crowds with showmanship moves, there are fundamental principles and values that need to be practiced regularly before one can become successful.

Pyramid of Success is not so much a how-to book as it is a road map to guide you along the road to success. Before you can embark on that journey, you need to first define what success looks like to you. In a world too often focused on material wealth, status and power, I like the simplicity of Coach Wooden’s definition of success (peek back at the opening quote) and the principle behaviours he has identified that underpin that success. I’ll definitely be practicing ‘pyramid power’ in the weeks and months to come.

How do you define success? What behaviour or principle do you practice regularly that you believe contributes to your success?

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Dianne Coppola

ABOUT Dianne Coppola

I am passionate about leadership development, change management, community collaboration and…reading! I’ve been writing for the Actionable Book Club since 2014 and love to share my book insights with folks like you...
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