March Madness

By Steve Cooper

Perhaps the most interesting thing about watching the March Madness tournament is viewing how the different coaches choose to lead their programs. Over the years, nobody has done it better than legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who reached the Final Four 12 times and turned those appearances into 10 championships. Wouldn’t it be great if you could translate the leadership success demonstrated on the court to your business? You can!

Coach Wooden motivated from the inside out. He would often say you need talent to win, but what made him a great leader was his ability to get those talented individuals around him to execute. Coach Wooden loved to share his knowledge and created the “Pyramid of Success,” which highlights 15 key points to achieve success. It’s his definition of success, however, that makes him stand apart. Success isn’t about winning, it’s “peace of mind which is a direct result in knowing you’ve made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

This is how Coach Wooden disciple and head coach of the UCLA women’s gymnastics team, Valorie Kondos Field, began her path to leadership. Valorie, or “Miss Val,” is one of only two active coaches in the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame; was recently named the Pac-12 Coach of the Century; in 2018 she led her Bruin squad to their 7th National Championship under her guidance; and just last week she was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year—again. And… she’s never done gymnastics in her life! In fact, she’s never played competitive sports! Miss Val was a professional ballerina.

This is all to say, leadership can be taught even for those who lack industry experience. As the co-author of Miss Val’s book, “Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance” the following are the lessons that have been passed down from Coach Wooden and filtered through Miss Val to you.

  1. It All Matters. Everything you do matters. This, of course, includes what you say, but more importantly what you don’t say. In her book, Miss Val recalls in the late 1990s how one of her best competitors always showed up ready to compete. She was a rock. Miss Val says she would let the competent athlete do her thing and spend her time helping those who needed the pep talk. During the athlete’s sophomore season, she approached Miss Val and asked why she didn’t receive any attention during the competitions. The athlete then shared how that lack of attention hurt her feelings. Miss Val was shocked! Didn’t the athlete know she wasn’t receiving attention because she was so great? No. Why would she? Miss Val had never expressed that confidence to her. What you don’t say to those around you can have just as much of an impact—if not more—than what you do say.
  1. Cultivate Integrity. You don’t have to be a super star to have integrity. Having integrity is practicing what you preach—all the time! This is how you create a positive and effective culture within an organization. That means being a champion and doing the right thing even when no one is watching. This is a choice you get to make and it’s one you can exemplify to those around you. In business, Steve Jobs famously maintained the integrity of the Apple design even in places that weren’t meant to be seen. To this day Apple puts as much thought into designing the internals of a gadget as they do the externals. When you lead with integrity it makes the process and decision-making that much easier because you understand your intention and always have a firm foundation under you.
  1. Listen/Silent. We live in a time of one million and one distractions. It’s easy to interact with someone for a few minutes, but never really hear what they’re saying. Miss Val identifies how many of us begin formulating what we want to say in response when others are speaking—one of the lowest forms of listening. Miss Val found a new tool, an anagram, when sports psychologist, Dr. William Parham visited the team. In a meeting Dr. Parham said to the team, “In order for us to have a conversation with someone, or appreciate the beauty of nature, or enjoy a concert, we need to truly listen.” Everyone agreed. Dr. P, as he’s affectionately known, then said, “To LISTEN we need to rearrange those letters… and become SILENT. Not just in terms of speaking, but in our minds.” Great leaders are masters of listening.
  1. Diverse, Not Divisive. UCLA has a long history of championing diversity. Before John Wooden arrived on campus civil rights icon and baseball great Jackie Robinson was breaking down barriers. In Miss Val’s book, she describes a conversation she had with Olympic Gold medalist, Bart Connor, on how the diversity of the team’s makeup empowered the program. The thought of intentionally focusing on diversity still seems superfluous to some, but there’s concrete evidence to support the benefits of diversity. In fact, research has shown that when we are with people who look and think like we do, we tend to emphasize our similarities. However, when we’re in a more diverse group we feel freer to openly express our uniqueness. If you want to lead an innovative company become a more diverse company. 
  1. Purposeful Intention. Throughout Miss Val’s career she has earned a lauded reputation as an innovative choreographer. In fact, a few years ago the Los Angeles Times published an article highlighting the fact that her gymnast’s routines continue to go viral. What is likely to surprise most within her industry is that she isn’t particularly fond of choreographing floor routines. However, she doesn’t let that stop her from finding motivation in the challenge. As a leader Miss Val understands, like most of us, that there will be parts of the job we don’t cherish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t excel at them. Leaders set the tone of enthusiasm and intention. Moreover, a great leader finds a way to execute when the challenge is hardly stimulating or the payoff less than exciting… but sometimes it just might go viral.

Steve Cooper is a journalist and co-author of “Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance.” For nearly 20 years Cooper has written and/or edited for Entrepreneur, Bloomberg, Forbes, the Huffington Post, BusinessWeek,, and many others. Cooper is also the co-founder and editor of

Photo credit: Christy Ann Linder