Book Notes – Wooden on Leadership: Think Small

Why should leaders sweat the small stuff?

Someone said that you shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”  but based on what I just read, they have it all wrong.  Sometimes it’s the small things that can make all the difference.  If you want to be effective as a leader, there’s good reason why you should pay close attention to the “small stuff.”  Here’s why.

Book Notes - Wooden on Leadership

Consistency Proves Excellence

This focus on the small is something that Coach John Wooden has emphasized throughout his extraordinary career.

As a basketball coach, it would be very difficult to find his equal.  He is reknown for the ten NCAA National Championships his team the UCLA Bruins won in just 12 years, his four undefeated seasons, and his election to the basketball hall of fame as both a player and a coach.

The fact that every one one of his national championship wins was with different players makes him even more notable as a leader.

His book, Wooden on Leadership is well-organized, easy to read, and crammed with nuggets of leadership wisdom that easily transfer to the non-basketball world.

Among the lessons he shares, there were a few that you might find surprising, including one that focuses on small things.  That lesson begins, strangely enough, with socks.

Much Ado About Socks

One of his former players describes what that first team meeting was like at the beginning of the season.  Coach Wooden would enter the room, look them in the eyes, and say, “Let’s get down to business.”

And then this coaching legend would proceed to tell them to trim their finger nails.  And tuck in their shirts.  After that, he’d teach his athletes how to put on their socks.

He wouldn’t just talk about how to do it, either.  He would take off his shoes and show them personally.

Explaining as he went, he would ease the sock on, showing them how to smooth out wrinkles and folds.  He’d demonstrate how to work from the toes up towards the calf to eliminate creases in a very precise manner.  And he’d have them do it right alongside him.

He would explain to his incredulous players:  properly worn socks can help prevent blisters.  Players without blisters can stay in the game longer.  Players who aren’t distracted by foot pain can play better.  Properly worn socks contribute to success. Therefore how you wear your socks is an important detail that cannot be overlooked.

There’s No Big Secret

In beginning the season this way, Wooden was very consciously making the point that small details matter.  In fact, that was key to his view of what it took to be successful.  There were no big secrets.

As he says, “There are no big things, only a logical accumulation of little things done at a very high standard of performance.”  Success comes from making sure you do those little things exceptionally well.

Nothing is so mundane that it shouldn’t be considered a potential contributor to success.  Like socks.

He’s quick to clarify it’s not every detail.  It’s the pertinent ones.  The key is to identify which details might create an incremental advantage, and make sure you are giving them the attention they deserve.

Success, not the devil, is in the details. - Wooden Click To Tweet

Think Small

That eye for detail carried over into everything he did.

He had players’ feet measured for proper shoe size and fit, and taught them how to lace and tie their shoes.

He bought colored vests for practice so that players got used to playing against the color uniform of that week’s opponent.

He set hair and grooming standards: long hair and beards collect sweat that gets on the hands, affecting ball control.

Practices were planned down to the minute and followed religiously so that they didn’t waste precious time.

If he thought something could impact performance, he was interested in it, evaluated it, and set a standard for it for his team to match.  This focus was the first part of his three part formula:

Think small, work hard, get good. - Wooden Click To Tweet

When you sweat the small stuff, you set the conditions for big gains.

How you put on your socks may not be the thing that produces an incremental advantage in your world, but there are sure to be plenty of things that do.  Successful leaders figure out what they are and teach their teams to do them very, very well.

Wooden on Leadership – The Takeaway

Wooden on Leadership is a well-written book on the basics of solid leadership.  It’s filled with practical wisdom, memorable quotes, and interesting stories that illustrate his ideas.

I think you will find that his simple, no-nonsense approach is easy to grasp, and that his experience with leading basketball teams translates well to whatever leadership environment you happen to be in.

It all begins by thinking small, defining the details that contribute to your success, then putting in the work to get really good at them.

As for me, I’m not sure I’ll ever put on socks quite the same again.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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