Leadership – What’s Love Got To Do With it?

johnwooden“It’s the most powerful thing there is” – John Wooden

John Wooden is a basketball coaching legend – in his 27 years at UCLA, his teams had a winning percentage of 81%, and they won a unfathomable 10 NCAA titles.

He was also a lifetime student of leadership and personal development, creating what he called the “Pyramid of Success“.

He is now 99 years old – and in a recent ESPN  interview (do watch it – it’s extraordinary),  he revealed what he considered to be the two most important elements of all his success:

  1. Love
  2. Balance

To him,  love is the “most powerful thing there is“.   It was certainly powerful in his personal life – he had a strong bond with his father who taught him the value of loyalty, and was married to his high school sweetheart Nell for 53 years until her passing in 1985, with a deep and abiding love that is still burning brightly.

What’s more, the power of love carried over into his professional life, with the manner in which he coached and led his teams.  Here is what he said back in 1996 about a leader’s responsibility:

“You must set an example. Your players must know that you care for them more than just as athletes. Certainly, they understand that they are there because of their athletic ability, speaking of college. That’s why they’re there. That’s paying their way. But when you have them under your supervision, it’s up to you to make sure that they understand that you care for them as individuals. As…Alonzo Stagg said, he never had one he didn’t love. A lot of them he didn’t like, couldn’t respect. But he loved them just the same.”

John Wooden knew that if he was to earn the trust of his players, and lead them to greatness, he had to love them.  Then, and only then, he could apply the principles of his “Pyramid of Success“, which requires much focus, discipline and practice.

This is not a new concept when it comes to great leadership- after all, in one of the oldest leadership books out there, The Art of War (it goes back to the 6th Century BC),  Sun Tzu said  “He treats them as his own beloved sons and they will stand by him until death”.

However, it is not a concept well suited to the typically rough and tumble world of business.   It’s a point of view that dares not speak its name in the halls and in the boardrooms.   It seems too “soft” – too “wishy-washy“.   As if speaking about loving our teammates would be the ultimate weakness, a major flaw that could be regularly exploited by the more ruthless, manipulative and cynical people in the workplace.

It is also seemingly incompatible with downsizing, and layoffs, and other actions that are taken  “for the good of the business”.

What John Wooden has taught us is that love is NOT “soft” – it is NOT incompatible.  It is essential. If every leader out there could practice what he has preached for so many years, imagine what a different (and better) world this would be.

Because after all, we’re talking about humans here- we all function better in environments where we know in our hearts that our caretakers, our mentors, and our leaders,  really care about us, and are doing their best to guide and teach us.

That’s “the most powerful thing” at work – it binds, it inspires, and makes success possible beyond our wildest dreams.

Just ask John Wooden.

What’s love got to do with leadership?


(This one is for BB. Love always..)


  1. says

    Love is a powerful word…or maybe even better…a powerful action. John Wooden is such a wonderful example of love in action. And the ESPN video you shared was so worth watching. It all has me thinking more deeply about how I can be more loving in all aspects of my life. Great stuff!!

  2. says

    Living 99 years without love would be very very exhausting. Never heard of John Wooden before, going to check out some of his work.
    Thank you for the post, Terry.

  3. says

    Terry, thanks for the great post. I have a great admiration for Coach Wooden and his leadership ability. He personifies the leadership qualities he talks about; truly loving others with action. He puts others first.


  4. says

    Thanks Christina, Lance, Lucny and Mike for your comments. The Beatles are right, “all you need is love”. John Wooden has proven that, hasn’t he?

    Thanks again, and all the best!

  5. says

    A joyous “what if” indeed. This love in a business context is rarely seen and even more rarely identified. Now if we took the WSJ piece today on bonus removal and linked love and leadership of one’s team to performance indicators (take that Wall St), we might be getting somewhere.

  6. says

    Terry, I’m overjoyed to see that you have taken up this mantle and mantra. The hard fact is that the message is best received by both men and women when it comes from a man – I’m glad that guy is you. Love-based leadership (the love of the job and the people) creates magic by tapping the discretionary effort that goes far beyond job descriptions. The magic that we created with love-based leadership is still referred to as “the glory days” by many who will never forget what it felt like to have fun and get it done!

  7. says

    I went to UCLA. My Freshman year we went to a Bruin/Trojan game and got to hang with John Wooden for a bit. He was tired (you could tell). But it was awesome that still (even that day), he always took the time to be with students and fans to give autographs, take pictures and more. He’s an amazing person and an amazing example.

    Is it soft to love in business and in life? I don’t think so. If anything, it gives people a reason to want to work with you more (if that makes sense).

  8. says

    Are you channeling Tina Turner?

    I was blessed to meet and visit with Coach Wooden about 25 years ago during my first career as a college hoops coach. What a wonderfully warm, caring, loving person. He treated me like we were old friends and made me feel like I was the most important person in the world to him while we were speaking. It’s something I’ll always cherish.

  9. says

    Thanks Chrysula, Jeanne, Ricardo and Joe for your comments (sorry about the delay, I’ve been out of pocket the last 36 hours).

    Chrysula, yes indeed, we would be getting somewhere! Here’s hoping that one day it’s commonplace.

    Jeanne, “have fun and get it done” is about the best mantra any company could have. I also appreciate the encouragement! 🙂

    Ricardo, it does make sense- treat your teammates with respect, and care for their well being, and great things can happen, no doubt (and how cool was that to meet John Wooden!)

    Joe, c’mon, you know ya gotta channel Tina Turner every now and then! 🙂
    I bet that meeting with Coach Wooden was really something, and it certainly doesn’t surprise me that he was so gracious.

    Thanks again to you all, and all the best!

  10. says

    Wonderful post, Terry. You’ve nailed an important aspect of leadership that’s rarely discussed. One of the reasons I’ve treasured being a small business owner for 27 years is the ability to form deep, caring relationships with my two partners and our team members. People really do give their best at work (and at home!) when they know they are loved and accepted. Of course, tough love is needed at times, but that’s accepted more readily when there’s a strong foundation of trust and respect.

  11. says

    Great article and right on target. I recently wrote my first business book titled “Loyalty is Love: How to Hold Clients Close for Life.” As I was writing it I had numerous associates advise me that a book with that title would never sell – they wanted me to drop the “L” word. I chose not to listen and left the title as is. I’m so glad that I did. As you said, Love is an essential part of life, both professionally and personally. Thanks for boldly reminding us all of its importance. Blessing, Beverly

  12. cc says

    It is the most powerful force in the universe. You can not lead without it by the same token you inspire in others what you yourself feel about your job.

  13. Chad Hunsinger says

    The picture of John gives us the most insight as to how to love, lead, work, etc. Subtle and humble, as the the best leaders are.

  14. says

    What a wonderful example of what true leadership / management looks like and WHY it is so successful. Thank you for getting the word out!

    One of the biggest issues with modern “leadership” is an overemphasis on numbers. Sure it can work to reach monthly & quarterly targets, but it quickly dehumanizes any organization. I’m not suggesting data shouldn’t be integral to decision-making processes, but it’s only ONE of several parts. Valuing and recognizing (i.e., Loving) your colleagues is critically important to build sustainable success. Take care!

  15. says

    This post came at an interesting time for me. Four coworkers that I have worked with for many years have recently announced they’ll be moving on to other things. One is is moving her family to Rome, another is back to grad school, etc. Our company has always had a strong family feel (the owners are brother and sister). It makes for a very fulfilling work environment. We have a lot of fun together, sometimes too much, and often at the expense of our CEO who is a very good sport. I consider most of the people that I work with to be my close friends. My direct supervisor was even present for the birth of my son…as in, she stayed with me in the hospital, told me when to push, the whole nine yards! I’m not sure it can get much more intimate than that. I’m grateful to be a part of it all, but when we “lose” a team member, it sure does feel like crap and sometimes makes me wish I didn’t LOVE these people so much!

  16. says

    Great blog! And the example of a man who had developed what I call Inner Leadership… because without knowing love from the inside-out it’s impossible to authentically show such love and model it for other people.

    How rich and inspiring… Thank you!

  17. Sunita says

    I was lucky to read this blog even if so late after it was on!
    It felt very good the read the comments too.
    Hope to put it into practice and wish that more people read this.
    Have a fantastic 2011 all of you!

  18. Sunita says

    Ricardo Bueno, Hi, Am tweeting this line of yours:
    Is it soft to love in business and in life? I don’t think so. If anything, it gives people a reason to want to work with you more (if that makes sense).

    Hope you don’t mind.



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