What is “success”?

Lessons From John Wooden


I’ve always struggled with the way my mentors defined success for me and my team. It was usually defined in one of the two ways: “Look out for yourself” and “Go for the win“.

The “Lookout for yourself” camp told me to never mind the company or the team. Do the best I can do but keep my personal advancement as the priority. Teams and jobs come and go, and you need to make sure that your career moves forward.

The “Go for the win” camp told me that the project was the most important thing. I had to “make hard decisions”, put people last and the project first, sacrifice personal life in order for the project to succeed. They made me feel guilty for anything less than that. They told me that if the project does not succeed, all these wonderful people will lose their jobs and their lives will be ruined, and I am to blame as a leader.

I resented both camps equally.

It was not until I’ve read “Coach John Wooden on Leadership” that I finally found a way to formulate the definition of success that resonated with me. It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s whether you’ve done your best to be the best you can be.  Below are coach’s thoughts on success.


Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

Competitive greatness is not defined by victory or loss. The hard struggle therefore is to be welcomed, never feared. When you define success this way, the only thing to fear is your own unwillingness to make the full, 100% effort to prepare and perform at the highest level of your ability.
A person who values winning above anything will do anything to win.  This is the kind of person who is quick to quit in tough times, eager to leave when offered a better chance of winning or making more money elsewhere. That type of person’s allegiance, loyalty, and commitment are paper thin, and it is difficult to build a successful team when fidelity is no deeper than a dollar bill.
Values and character, not winning, is what matters.

Be the master of your emotions

Keep Calm

As a leader one of the worst things you can do is to let emotions rule your day. If you “lose your shit” in front of the team, you’ve just lost your team’s respect.

My friend YY. likes to compare it to a sergeant on the battlefield. If the sergeant shows fear or panic, every soldiers under him is going to think: “We are all going to die”.

Coach Wooden has a really good chapter on this in his book “On Leadership”. He explains there that emotions cloud your judgement, causing you to make mistakes. He doesn’t consider it a failure if he made a decision with a cool head and it doesn’t work out. In fact, he encourages you to take risks as long as they are based on cool assessment of the available facts. If, however, you made a decision based on your emotional state and it didn’t work out, then it’s a true error.

Another point he makes in the book is that the ultimate goal of any team should be consistent performance at their peak capacity.  Normally the leaders “pump up” their teams before large events, celebrate the wins and mourn the losses. To coach Wooden, you don’t treat a special event (like a championship game) any different than a normal event (like a practice). You simply give it your best regardless of the situation you are in, every time. If you win, you stay cool, calm and collected. If you lose, you stay cool, calm and collected. Emotions cloud your judgement, leading to mistakes. Don’t let it happen to you and your team.

Do you have to be a teacher to be a great leader?

With experience came realization that to be a good leader, you MUST be a great teacher.

It’s not enough for you to know your field very well and be excellent at it. You must understand how to teach it to others.   

As a new leader, I expected people to just do their job. We are all professionals after all, why can’t I just say “I need X, Y and Z” and expect them to be able to figure out how to get it done?

Not so quick. Before you tell them what to do, you need to teach them how to do it. And not just the technical/mechanical stuff, but also how YOU expect these things done. You need to teach them your values, methodologies, and expectations.

It took me over 2 years to come to this realization. In the process I got frustrated with my fully capable and talented employees for not “getting” what I was asking of them. They either did it wrong, not the way I expected it done, or got overwhelmed and frustrated. I now know it’s been my fault all along, not theirs.

So you want to change how things work around here…

Think big but start small

As a producer, you will frequently need to introduce a New Process to the team. You’ll work long and hard on identifying the problem areas in production, think about different ways of fixing those problems, and finally come up with a solution. “It we only did it this way, it’d all work out much better“. 

You’ll probably quickly run the new idea by a few people, everyone is happy after some back-and-forth – and you send an email to the team. “Team, Starting today, this is how we are going to do this”  … only to receive flaming emails in your inbox and angry people at your door. And your perfect New Process will crumble in front of your eyes like a house of cards.

To avoid it, every New Process must begin with the grassroots. Think of it as a political campaign where you are electing the New Process to the office. You first go to the very bottom of the org pyramid, to those deep in the trenches. You discuss the problem with them, listen to them and collect their ideas. You propose your solution but let them shape its final form. It’s solving their problems after all.

Key point: Every New Process must begin with the grassroots. Think of it as a political campaign where you are electing the New Process to the office.

You do it one by one, no large meetings here! It’s difficult to control a group; before you can control the group you must control the individuals. Make sure you talk to the most respected (by their peers) people first. Get their input and their support. Then talk to the leads, then directors. In this journey, make sure to listen and adapt your proposal based on feedback. Only when you know that you’ve got people’s support, that you’ve got the “key votes” for your New Process secured, you do go public with the New Process. At that point your email will be met with cheers rather than resistance. If there are few who didn’t know about and are opposing the New Process, they will be quickly converted by their peers who helped build the New Process and feel a profound sense of ownership in it.

It takes much more effort to introduce change to large teams like this, as opposite to just dictating it down. But in the end it’s worth it – the procedure was refined by those closest to the problem and in the process  it became THEIR ideas, THEIR decision, they will understand it better and follow it eagerly.