The Ethics of CEO Leadership: The Message of John Wooden (1910-2010)

Newspapers across the country today are honoring the life of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden who died yesterday. The outpouring of praise might seem unusual given his long life (99) years and the many tributes already paid while he was alive to experience them. He also retired 35 years ago as a college coach, rather than a world leader, so what creates his staying power in the hearts of so many who never met him, let alone the men he coached, only some of whom went on to become sports legends?

In addition to all the other possible reasons, I think it is because 60 years ago he created a philosophy that he called his “Pyramid of Success” which speaks to athletes as well as CEOs about how to dominate in one’s field and achieve maximum results. It a formula for leadership that is aligned with current trends called authentic leadership.”

Wooden’s approach was grounded in a player’s developing himself as a person. The 15 building blocks create a framework that unites ethics and emotional intelligence with mental and physical conditioning, skill, and competitive greatness.

Wooden, both a student and teacher of wisdom, said of character and reputation: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are; your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

Think about the parade we’ve had the last few months of CEOs from companies with huge reputation issues called before Congressional committees to explain what went wrong, why harm was caused, how public trust was lost. Consider the hearings on huge oil profits and high oil prices, health insurers, Akio Toyoda testifying on unintended acceleration, (Toyota), Richard Fuld on the collapse of Lehman, Lloyd Blankfein on Goldman Sachs’ priority on customers, Don Blankenship on mine safety, (Massey Energy mine disaster) and Lamar McKay and others on BP’s oil spill not being the company’s fault (BP America) to name a few. Still to be heard from is CEO William Weldon asked to explain Johnson & Johnson’s series of recalls and how the company has handled them.

What is there about Wooden’s Pyramid of Success that offers CEOs outstanding executive coaching?  The pyramid takes the hallmark driven behavior of achievers and blends it with values that create a context for actions. Wooden won 10 national titles. He inspired loyalty and consistent and outstanding performance. He tapped into what his players could be inspired to do to achieve their potential.

“Ability,” he said, “may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”

The ethical leadership lessons for the court fit very well in the board room.

Gael O’Brien, June 5, 20010

The Week in Ethics

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2 Comments on “The Ethics of CEO Leadership: The Message of John Wooden (1910-2010)”


  1. […] O’Brien writing on her blog, The Week in Ethics, discusses the message of John Wooden. During his lifetime, Wooden created a “pyramid of success” comprised of fifteen […]

  2. Jane Roeder Says:

    Your article about John Wooden’s leadership coaching speaks to the heart of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership’s newest initiative, the annual John Wooden Ethics in Leadership Award. Coach Wooden was the inaugural recipient in 2009 and Special Olympics Southern California will receive the 2010 award on June 12th. In addition, the Ukleja Center offers an annual Ethics at The Beach seminar based on The John R. Wooden Course. It is an honor to share Coach Wooden’s visionary leadership and exemplary ethical practices through these two programs.


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