Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

The Leadership Theories of Coach John Wooden: “Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry”

2 minute
Basketball court

The struggle continues as hospital executives work overtime to return their organizations to necessary profitability, essential competitiveness, and offering an appropriate level of clinical access. As noted in this blog several months ago, management guru Peter Drucker always maintained that hospitals were the hardest of all American organizations to run successfully. If Drucker were still alive, he would—without question—double down on that observation.

The question must be asked whether historical hospital leadership structures and strategies are still adequate to cope with a fast-changing healthcare industry that features a different level of financial problems, an unrecognizable workforce, and a shape-shifting patient population? This is a leadership question that requires a thoughtful and sophisticated answer. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we cannot solve our hospital management problems with the same level of leadership that created them.

So, we are collectively on the hunt for leadership and managerial solutions. The leadership ideas must be different, original, and challenge conventional thinking. Successful healthcare executives these days must be active readers and learners. Winning ideas are everywhere but you need to be both curious and aggressive to find them.

In that regard, let’s turn our curiosity toward the theories and teachings of Coach John Wooden. For our younger readers, John Wooden was the coach of the of the UCLA men’s basketball program from 1948 to 1975. During that time, he won 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years and at one point his teams won 88 games in a row. ESPN’s “Page 2” readers voted him the greatest coach of all time. But John Wooden wasn’t just a basketball coach; he was a manager, an executive, a teacher, and a philosopher. There was nothing random or laissez-faire about his approach to leadership. Coach Wooden led through a series of principles that he applied with absolute consistency. Players changed, the opposition changed, and external factors changed, but Coach Wooden’s essential approach to leadership did not vary or change.

The central tenet of Coach Wooden’s leadership philosophy was the somewhat Zen-like principle of “be quick—but don’t hurry.” At first blush, this organizing principle doesn’t seem to make much sense, especially to the casual reader. John Wooden believed and taught that there were two keys to successful performance, both in sports and otherwise. First, quickness and a sense of urgency was absolutely necessary to winning in a competitive environment. But for Coach Wooden, quickness itself was not sufficient for consistent success. Quickness had to be accompanied by emotional and professional balance in order to achieve team and organizational excellence. So, from Coach Wooden’s perspective, a great athlete or a great executive had to not just move and think quickly, but also had to make sure that he or she was moving to a place of personal balance. Coach Wooden believed that this concept of personal balance was the key to real success at both the team and individual level. To find that place of balance you needed to be quick, but to retain that balance you had to be sure not to hurry. In other words, “be quick—but don’t hurry.”

“Be quick—but don’t hurry” was the central principle of John Wooden’s leadership style but “be quick—but don’t hurry” was also the platform on which an entire management and leadership theory was built. This led to other key Wooden tenets including:

  1. Focus on Effort, Not Winning. Amazingly for a coach that won 10 national championships, the UCLA players always said that Coach Wooden never talked much about winning. Instead, he talked about individual and team effort. He talked about the process, the belief that the right leadership combined with exceptional effort would inevitably deliver remarkable results.
  2. A Good Leader Is First a Teacher. John Wooden’s first job out of college was teaching high school English. And for the rest of his career, he always thought of himself as a teacher. Wooden taught through four components: demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition. Coach Wooden had this absolutely right from my perspective: To be a great leader and executive, you almost always have to be a great teacher first.
  3. Teamwork Is a Necessity. Bill Walton, one of Coach Wooden’s most accomplished and greatest players, said it best: “Coach Wooden challenged us to believe that something special could come from the group effort. We live in a society that is constantly pushing us to be individual, to be selfish. But Coach Wooden constantly focused on the group, and how there could be no success unless everybody believed in the same goal and everybody came out of there feeling good about the success of others.”
  4. Failing to Prepare Is Preparing to Fail. This quote is often attributed to Coach Wooden, but it was first said by Benjamin Franklin. Coach Wooden was extraordinarily well-prepared. Even after years and years of amazing and unprecedented success, Coach Wooden still scripted each and every practice. He was famous for arriving to practice early to make sure everything was in order and that, in fact, he and the team were completely prepared to get the most out of that afternoon. Hospitals and health systems have “practices” as well: They are called “meetings.” What is the standard for preparation in your hospital organization? What is the quality of the work both before and after meetings? What is the level of preparation for consequential meetings such as rating agency presentations, Board approval of major initiatives, and important discussions with external parties? The longer my consulting and business career goes on, the more I have come to believe in and rely on impeccable preparation.

This blog covers just a few of Coach Wooden’s many approaches to and commentaries on management and leadership. But the above observations are a useful start. It is important to disclose that this blog post was guided by and drew quotes from an excellent book, Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry: Finding Success in the Teachings of a Lifetime, which was written by Andrew Hill (a former UCLA player) with the assistance of John Wooden. The book was published by Simon & Schuster in 2001 but as readers can easily see, the book by Messrs. Hill and Wooden remains absolutely relevant today. The book is a short read but will prove to be a good use of your time and your curiosity.

Learn and be smart. Those are the key attributes for today’s healthcare executives. Yesterday’s executive techniques are no longer getting the job done. Hospital leaders must be better in order to deal with the long list of obstacles that are preventing hospital success. Coach Wooden invented a unique roadmap to executive learning and leadership. That Wooden roadmap is definitely “old school,” but that roadmap and its attendant theories and methods are absolutely worth your attention.

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