Like a salmon swimming upstream, the always compelling Richard Gunderman, MD, suggests that no amount of leadership training will make a leader out of you if you don’t deserve to lead.
A skilled teacher well acquainted with the power of example, Gunderman held up as a role model one of the truly great leaders of our time, the late and legendary John Wooden. As an Angeleno, I have heard more than a few quotes attributed to the basketball coach who led the Bruins on an 88-game winning streak, including four perfect seasons.
However Gunderman (pictured in the photo), paints a portrait of a man who was an excellent human being, and this was the source of his greatness as a leader. What made him tick, says Gunderman, were the values Wooden learned on a farm in rural Indiana.
A life-long learner, Wooden majored in English and aspired to be a literature professor, and he drew on this reservoir to guide and teach his players, Gunderman says, “not tactics and strategy, but a deep appreciation of what goes on in the hearts of men.”
Wooden’s principle concern was to bring out the absolute best in everyone on the team, and not because he wanted a winning machine but because he cared about his team members.
Throughout his talk, Gunderman posed a series of questions meant to exact soul searching from his listeners.
Question No 1: To what degree do you see yourself as catalyst to help make people shine?
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review related the first thing John Wooden taught every new player who joined the team: he taught them how to put on their socks and shoes. The author of this article said that the reason he did this was because if the players get blisters, they couldn’t play.
According to Gunderman, that writer missed the point: More importantly, Wooden wanted to teach his players that we are all the same, we all put on our socks one at a time. “That was Coach Wooden’s foundation of leadership: We are all the same, all possessed of the same innate dignity.”
Wooden made $35,000 a year, drove a 1989 Taurus, and lived in an 800-sq-ft condominium in Encino, full of books. He never asked for or accepted a raise.
He was more interested in excellence than success, and character than reputation. Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished but by what you should accomplish.
Question No. 2: What would it mean to excel as a radiologist, a wife, a father?
Wooden refused to retire Lew Alcindor’s jersey because he was thinking about the contributions of the boy who wore the jersey before Alcindor.
Wooden famously said, “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.” The reason Wooden could do it is because his players knew in his heart he wanted the best for them. He so genuinely cared about his players, that toward the end of his life, Wooden could tell you where 172 of his 180 players lived.
“This guy cared about people,” Gunderman says.
Gunderman shared an anecdote about visiting a radiologist in her 8,000-sq-ft. home and listening to her complain bitterly about how long she had to wait for the elevator in her 8,000-sq.-ft. home.
“Some of us are leading our lives upside down, and no amount of education will ever rescue us,” Gunderman says. “Leadership is not primarily a skill or a technique; great leaders are creatures of human caring.”
Question No. 3: What’s your caring? What’s my caring? Do we deserve to lead?
“If the answer is no,” says Gunderman, “we need to go back to square one.”