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Scott Eblin

What Would Wooden Say?

by Scott Eblin on June 7, 2010 10:00am

in The Next Level

John_wooden It’s easy to conclude that they just don’t make them like John Wooden anymore. Like my grandfather, who passed away at age 93 a couple of years ago, Wooden was literally a man from another century. As so many tributes over the weekend recalled, he was the winningest coach in college basketball history leading UCLA to 10 national championships in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was so much more than that though. 

As evidenced by the many former players including Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabar who flew in from around the country and around the world to stand watch at his deathbed, Wooden shaped lives. He did it through his coaching, his teaching, his actions and his words. One article I read about him said that he never accepted a salary at UCLA that was higher than $32,500 because it wouldn’t be modest. As my mother asked me in a phone call last night, how often do we even hear the word modest anymore?

For the past year or so, I’ve been using the following Wooden quote to close my presentations because I love the way he described the effect of continuous improvement:

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur… Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens and when it happens it lasts.

Wooden, for me, has been a Yoda like figure. Small stature, but huge in wisdom. I’ve been thinking the past couple of days about what he would say about the quality of leadership in the public arena these days.  What would his take be on oil spills in the Gulf, safety violations that led to the deaths of coal miners, short term interest decisions that led to the near collapse of the global economy? We’ll never know what Wooden would have said about the failure of leadership in these and other arenas, but by reading through some of his quotes, I think we can make an educated guess:


Armando Who would have thought that the feel good story of the
week would be one of the biggest blown calls in the history of baseball?
By now, you’ve probably heard the story of how Detroit Tigers pitcher
Armando Galarraga had a perfect game plucked from his grasp when first
base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe when he was clearly out in
what should have been the last play of the game. Galarraga himself was
covering first and stepped on the bag with the ball in his glove a good
step and a half before the runner got

Galarraga and the rest of the Tigers were
getting ready to celebrate when he looked over to see Joyce signaling
safe. That’s when a series of moments of truth began that have led to
such a captivating story. In a time when oil company executives spend
their time in front of Congress blaming each other for an environmental
disaster and there are countless other examples of nominal leaders not
taking accountability for their actions, we get a really simple and
clear example of how we’d like our leaders to act and how we hope we’d
respond in similar circumstances. 

Here are
three simple lessons from the blown call and its aftermath:


Plenty of managers feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place because they have someone on their team who produces great results but alienates almost everyone around them. They’re prima donnas! If you have a prima donna on your team who keeps playing games, bite the bullet and fire the person. Here’s why.


Strawman I don’t mean to be rude with the title question of this post, but I’ve learned over the last four or five years of coaching that it’s a great question to ask yourself. Here’s why. 

How many times have you been in a conversation with a group of colleagues that goes something like this?

Wow, they totally don’t get it. They are so far removed from reality that they really just don’t know what’s going on. They should be doing something to change the situation but they don’t even know where to start. You know, what else? For the most part, they’re all like that.

Admit it. You’ve been in those conversations. Here’s how it usually plays out. A bunch of corporate directors are sitting around talking about the corporate vice presidents and how they don’t get it. Or a bunch of GS-15’s are hanging out talking about the SES leaders in their agency and how they don’t get it. I know those conversations go on because when I speak to leaders at any level, I usually ask them if they’ve been in conversations like that. As soon as I ask the question, there are a lot of embarrassed, sheepish expressions spreading throughout the room. Almost everybody’s done it. I used to do it myself on a semi-regular basis when I was a corporate executive.


If you’ve ever been a part of two organizations coming together as one,
you know how challenging that can be. More mergers fail than succeed and
a big reason why is a mismatch between the cultures. If you’re a leader
responsible for shaping a culture that works (and what leader isn’t?),
then you need to take a look at this week’s Video Book Club feature.


One of the highlights of the week for me came
yesterday when I led a day long workshop on leadership coaching for a
group of candidates for the Federal Senior Executive Service. We talked a
lot about how important it is for leaders to know how to coach and
worked on different skills and models for coaching. 

Of course, a core skill for any coach is listening.
We worked on that skill by grouping up in threes with one person talking
about something that mattered to them, another person listening and
asking questions and the third person observing the listener. After
three or four minutes of conversation between the first two people, the
observer offered a minute or two of feedback to the listener. The
feedback consisted of two or three things the observer appreciated about
how the listener listened and one suggestion for how to be an even more
effective listener. We did three rounds of this so everyone could be in
each of the three roles.

As the second round ended, I
asked the group to bring their attention back to me for a second so I
could ask them if they were feeling what I was noticing watching them.
What I was noticing was the love in the room.  Here’s what I
mean by that and what it might mean to you.


In case you missed it, The New York Times recently profiled the new CEO of Xerox, Ursula Burns. The article, and her quotes within it, focused on one of my favorite topics: leadership transitions. There’s a lot of valuable perspective and advice in the article, but I want to pick up on one particular aspect: How do you handle it when you move from being a member of the team (no matter how big) to the leader of that same team?


Dennisblair Late last week, the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, resigned from his job after a little more than a year in the job. As reporting in the Washington Post points out, Blair’s replacement will be the fourth person to hold the DNI job in just over five years. In legislation passed after 9/11, the DNI’s charge is to coordinate the collaborative work of 16 different intelligence agencies including the CIA. Just about every informed observer believes that it’s an extremely difficult job, maybe even impossible.  

In some ways (and obviously not in others), the DNI role is like a lot of other leadership roles in a matrixed organizational structure. More and more these days, leaders find themselves in jobs with a lot of responsibility but not a lot of direct authority. With a mixture of dotted lines, solid lines and no lines at all in the org chart, leaders in a matrixed environment have the unenviable task of herding the cats. 

What can you do to survive one of these jobs? It seems pretty clear that you can’t act as if you have a lot of authority to command things get done when, practically speaking, there are all kinds of ways for others to avoid or ignore doing what you want them to do. Especially in the first year or so, surviving in a matrixed leadership role depends a lot on effective change management. With that idea in mind, here are five strategies to increase the chance of survival in one of these roles:


In this week’s installment of the VBC,
I’m featuring what I think is an indispensable part of a leadership
coach’s (and most leaders for that matter) tool kit. It’s a book called
– For Your Improvement

 by Mike Lombardo and Bob


Worldmap1 Thirty years ago, John Naisbitt took the publishing world by storm with his book, Megatrends. It was best seller for two years and sold nine million copies. Naisbitt identified ten big trends for the future by doing a deep analysis of current news stories and looking for the patterns within them. It was a classic case of what Harvard leadership strategist Ron Heifetz calls getting off the dance floor and onto the balcony.


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