What John Wooden Taught Us About Marketing

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Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden waves before the start of the NCAA national championship game in Seattle, in this April 3, 1995 file photo. Wooden, the peerless U.S. college basketball coach who became known as the Wizard of Westwood while winning a record 10 national championships at UCLA, died on June 4, 2010, at age 99, a spokesman for the UCLA Medical Center said. REUTERS/Jeff Vinnick/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL OBITUARY)

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” – Coach John Wooden

John Wooden’s death over the weekend, at the age of 99, got me thinking about the man they called “The Wizard of Westwood.” As someone who spent the early years of his career working in sports marketing, I thought about Wooden’s NCAA-record 10 national championships while coaching the legendary UCLA Bruins of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and Bill Walton and many others. I also remembered the man’s great humility and sense of humor, as well as his uncanny ability to get the best out of his players without overtly trying to put his ego or his own highly-respected reputation ahead of the game, his team or his employer (UCLA).

Mostly, though, I thought about how Wooden was not only one of college athletics’ great marketers, but a remarkable visionary for many of us in the business world. What John Wooden taught us—whether we work in sports, business, technology or even banking—is that you don’t always have to be flashy at what you do, and you certainly don’t always have to try to one-up your competition, to get the right kind of attention. All it takes is a tremendous vision, sticking by that vision and ensuring you embody your business’ mission and objectives in everything you do.

Countless entrepreneurs know of Wooden’s vaunted “Pyramid of Success,” from which the quote at the opening of this post derives. It was what guided Wooden, his players and his many followers for decades, and it can reasonably be said has had a profound impact on the way many CEOs and entrepreneurs have guided their businesses. At least I hope.

In an era where the “next big thing” is lauded on tech companies who have yet to make a dime of profit, or during a time when a big-oil company’s CEO still finds it difficult to say, “I’m sorry,” and actually address the big issues at hand, much of what John Wooden taught the business world is that it’s OK to show your true self. And it’s OK to be humble. Because doing so show demonstrates that you have a much bigger picture in mind: the long-term sustainability of something great, versus the short-term benefits that can arise from grandstanding.

In essence, you’re not trying to become the “next big thing” in whatever industry you reside, but instead, you are aiming to be something great for many years to come. You’re building a pyramid of success for your business, and as we all know, pyramids can’t be built in days or even months on the back of a lot of industry hype. They take a tremendous amount of planning, execution and good luck to get accomplished.

Wooden had one other key lesson he taught his players (as chronicled in this excellent New York Times appreciation) that holds a lot of value from a business standpoint: he told his players not to focus too much on the competition, or on their flashy Los Angeles counterparts, the NBA’s Lakers, who made the game look snazzy, but did so without many of the fundamentals that led Wooden’s Bruins to seven-straight NCAA titles in the 1960s.

Marketing lesson from this: We all want to be the next Twitter, Facebook or Huffington Post, but we may offer a product or service that does just as much good to a smaller, but still very integral, audience. We should focus every ounce of our business and marketing efforts on servicing that audience, and not worry too much about what Joe down the street is building with his latest gadget/store/restaurant.

What are some life or business lessons you value from John Wooden?

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