When my boss recommended John Wooden’s book, Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization, I had no idea who John Wooden was. I was 15 pages into it, still waiting to read about the guy’s trial record, when I realized that it was written by a basketball coach.
For those also less than basketball savvy, John Wooden was the head coach at UCLA from 1948 to 1975. During this time, he won 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row. To put that in perspective, no other team in history has won more than four in a row in Division I college men’s or women’s basketball. Needless to say, he was one of the most successful coaches in history.
I know nothing about basketball. I played once in third grade and ended up with a bloody nose. But I’m thankful that you don’t need to know about basketball to understand Wooden’s book and the values that built his team’s success. The fundamental principles in making and coaching a successful basketball team are the same in making a successful organization and a successful prosecutor.
One of the core philosophies in Wooden’s book (co-written with Steve Jamison) is redefining success. Wooden says the key to his successful team and winning streak was not from concentrating on the outcome, but the effort put forth in getting there. He defines success as “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.” As a leader, Wooden focused on the effort his team put in and whether players came as close as possible to reaching their potential. Winning was just a by-product of that effort.
John Wooden teaches how to achieve this through his pyramid of success. At the apex of his pyramid is success, and each of the 15 “blocks” that build the pyramid represent a quality necessary to reach it. For instance, one of his cornerstones is hard work—the kind of work in which you are fully engaged and focused, as opposed to just going through the motions. Hard work is just a small part of his overall pyramid, though. Another cornerstone is enthusiasm, because without enthusiasm in your work, you cannot perform to the best of your ability. The 15 building blocks are qualities involving attitude, work ethic, personal skills, and relationships with others. Wooden believes that the best way to show leadership and build a good team is through personal example, so he starts by showing how the 15 qualities make an individual successful, and then he broadens the scope to show how a team needs to possess each one of those qualities to be a successful organization.
As prosecutors, so often our view of success almost entirely depends upon whether we win or lose. If we get a guilty verdict, we are successful. If we get a not guilty, we aren’t successful. I subscribed to that idea of success for longer than I should have. I love winning and I am very competitive. Most of my family get-togethers include card games that usually end with someone—possibly me—angrily chucking the card deck across the room. So winning at trial was always my favorite part of being a prosecutor. I counted guilty verdicts as a success even if I hadn’t put in that much effort at trial. I overvalued advocacy instead of preparation, and I was getting back the verdict I wanted. My view of success was extremely shortsighted, and by worrying about the verdict alone, I was actually reinforcing bad habits and stunting my growth as a prosecutor. It wasn’t until I changed how I measure success from the verdict I received to the effort I put out, that I started to really develop skills a good prosecutor needs, such as preparation and planning.
I highly recommend John Wooden’s book because it is a step -by-step guide to being a successful professional and part of a winning team. Reading this book certainly won’t make you any better at basketball, but it will help you become the prosecutor you want to be and create the organization of which you want to be a part.