Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Legacy: A Life of Impact

Written by: on February 24, 2021

Each individual, in one sense or another, wants to leave a legacy. They want to put their signature stamp on the future and impact generations to come. Some do it consciously, some unconsciously. We all want our lives to matter. We hope that in some small way we make a difference to those around us. Forbes magazine claims our legacy can be seen by the summation of our work at each stage of our careers. It grows with each new experience, each new idea we are willing to chase, and with each person we take the time to inspire. Legacy isn’t forged at the end of life but along the way in each decision we make and each relationship we develop. Legacy and leadership are processes of change and discovery that guide our lives and affects those around us.[1] I am not sure if Coach Wooden thought much about leaving a legacy, but I am sure he lived an intentional life, asking a lot of questions. To Wooden, the most important question was “How do I help the team improve?” Wooden believed “An effective leader keeps asking that question because there’s always something more you can do – always room for improvement. Always.” To him it was a question that needed to be asked continually. Always finding new answers and better solutions.[2]

Many of the players who played for Wooden would openly say that the important things they learned from him had little to do with basketball. Many of them were fathers, some of them grandfathers. Many of them stayed in touch with Coach Wooden either by letter, phone or in person.[3] Bill Sweek saw Wooden as a person who despite his conservative background, was one who had the ability to relate to people of color and those less fortunate. Wooden was flexible and willing to change his thinking during social upheaval. Sweek would later state “He (Wooden) was a morally upright person. He could hear and he would listen. Despite his background, he was willing to change. He really was a lifelong learner.”[4]   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said “He was a teacher above all else. He challenged us without taking away our spirit. He taught me how to instill confidence in others. He made me understand that everything is a learning game. It’s all about learning about yourself and learning how to be successful.”[5] To his players, Wooden had stood the test of time living out the philosophy he had on a plaque in his office, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” He was seen as a student of life and as an individual who sought to improve a bit each day.[6]

John Wooden coached and built an amazing basket program during immense social change. He won 10 NCAA championships between 1963 and 1975. He had an amazing winning streak of 98 games from 1970 to 1975. When he decided to retire from coaching, a lot could be said about his accomplishments.  Despite all his success his “greatest victory may well have been his ability to emerge from all that tumult without losing sense of who he was — not a perfect man, but a very good one, a teacher more than a coach, a Christian, a husband, a father, anything but a wizard. He was going out a winner, but what mattered more was that he had been successful, even if he was the only on who understood the difference,”[7]  At 99 years old, just 5 months shy of 100 Wooden died the same way he lived. He had a clear conscience, peace of mind and very little money. “Most of all, he was prepared for his death – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He wasn’t a perfect man, and he didn’t live a perfect life, but he left this world in perfect balance; a success by any definition of the word.”[8]

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2014/02/20/5-ways-a-legacy-driven-mindset-will-define-your-leadership/?sh=7ef0c09216b1

[2] John Wooden and Steve Jamison, The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons and Leadership, (New York, McGraw Hill, 2007), 156.

[3] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014), 505.

[4] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014), 318.

[5] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014), 319.

[6] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014), 507.

[7] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014), 440.

[8] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014), 515

About the Author

Greg Reich

Entrepreneur, Visiting Adjunct Professor, Arm Chair Theologian, Leadership/Life Coach, husband, father and grandfather. Jesus follower, part time preacher! Handy man, wood carver, carpenter and master of none. Outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, hunter and all around gun nut.

11 responses to “Legacy: A Life of Impact”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    As I read your post, I think Wooden was a well differentiated leader. I appreciate his imperfections and humility, as sometimes when I read Friedman’s idea of differentiation, it leans more arrogant and head-strong. As I consider his death, it makes me wonder if the ability to be differentiated leads to a “good death” and the realization that while life wasn’t always perfect, it was balanced? It makes me wonder how implementing language/awareness around differentiation can help develop a non-anxious culture regarding death within our communities of faith?

    Thank you for helping us learn from Wooden via your posts. His legacy of teaching endures.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    I would agree that Wooden was a self differentiated leader. I would also say he wished he was a bit more personal with his players in some of his earlier years.
    I think each one of us needs to strive to reach a place of internal balance. It was Wooden’s foundational beliefs and processes that seemed to be the key to finding balance. He didn’t appear to carry a lot of excess baggage through life. Though this biography (nor does his leadership books) unfold how he dealt emotionally with the many challenges of life one can surmise it was the many parts of his pyramid of success that undergirded his ability to stay focused. Life balance is one of my greatest struggles as I continue to grow and dream.

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    Greg, as I think about legacy I think back to my old pastor in Kentucky. He used to be a missionary in Jamaica and when we I visited Jamaica with him on a mission trip, I was blown away at the legacy he had left behind. Hearing stories from the men and women who had lived in the orphanage he ran talk about the unconditional love he showed them was humbling. Reflecting on the time there was a contract to have him killed and his faithfulness during that time, the legacy he left behind as people came to vouch for him was, “This man has never taken anything from us. All he’s ever done is give.”

  4. Jer Swigart says:

    “How do I help the team improve?” Based on what I surmise from your writing this semester, this wasn’t merely a mechanical question. For Wooden, it seems that it was deeply personal. It was relational. If so, to hold the practical in tension with the personal/relational is a mark of an excellent leader. For in such a tension, those within his sphere of influence not only met their potential but likely exceeded it.

    • Greg Reich says:

      I often wonder how deep passion plays a role in a leaders ability to be selfless and put others before themselves? I also wonder how it plays a role in ones ability to be self differentiated? Wooden though a quite man was obviously passionate about his role as a coach and a leader.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    I’ve been considering lately the difference between calling and the vessel for that calling. Your posts seem to be making the consistent appeal that Wooden’s calling had little to do with basketball, but that was the most appropriate and available vehicle for him to live out that deeper calling. What would you add to that?

    • Greg Reich says:

      When I consider calling within the context of Martin Luther’s “finger of God” concept I see a broadened aspect of calling. In a general sense we are all called to Love God and Love people. How we do that and the tools we use can be vastly different depending on the context. Luther looked at a person as having multiple callings. For example under Luther’s idea of calling I am called to be a husband, a father, a teacher, a leader and a coach. In each vocational setting I am called to Love God and Love people. Obviously how I do this with my wife is different than I do with my students. The “finger of God” or the “mask of God” concept enables me to see that everything I do is an extension of God’s call on my life. I think for Wooden he would say he was called to raise up men that were leaders. His tool of choice was basketball. I believe it was his passion and where he was most gifted. His numerous books on leadership seem to be an extension of what he learned as a coach and pouring his life principles into his players.

  6. John McLarty says:

    Sports analysts love to make a big deal about a coach’s influence “tree”- charting how many former players or assistants go on to head coaching jobs themselves. There’s certainly something to that, but your post reminds me that a person’s influence can extend far beyond how many others achieve success in the same field. Wooten shaped hundreds of young men- some of whom would play more basketball and/or coach; while others would move on to more traditional ways of building a life. These men would become husbands and fathers. And Coach’s imprint would be on all of them, to varying degrees. It seems to me that a person can get consumed thinking about how they will be remembered or they can simply live in such a way that people will remember. Coach Wooten seemed to choose the latter and discovered that his authentic self was plenty.

  7. Greg Reich says:

    Coach Wooden was a huge influence on my life in high school. His book, “Call me Coach” spoke deeply into my life as a young basket ball player. It was actually his book that lead me in to becoming good friends with Fred Crowell who was the founder of one of the largest and most successful basketball camps in the northwest. He was the heard coach at the time for Samford University in Alabama as well as, the coach for athletics in action a Christian basketball association. Fred played a huge influence in all of my children’s life in sports. Each one went to his camps. My oldest daughter traveled the UK on his all star team several years ago and still periodically coaches at the summer camp.

  8. Chris Pollock says:

    Did it ever seem, with Wooden, that he ever ‘got down’ on himself?

    We can have such grandiose expectations of ourselves and the kind of legacy that we would like to leave.

    Perhaps, we can leave a legacy ‘in general’ with those we don’t know so well, those who will go by the judgements of others on our lives.

    Then, there’s the legacy ‘specific’. The little, magnificent things that are wonderfully-meaningful to those closest to us.

    When we leave to go home, does legacy really matter? It won’t necessarily be exactly what we had hoped for. So, perhaps the legacy of simplicity for our own souls, in our leaving to go home, could be a legacy of a life well-lived?

    Thank you, Greg. Thank you for sharing, and opening up the life of, Coach Wooden in these weeks gone by. So appreciated!

  9. Greg Reich says:

    The biography on Wooden dod show that he struggled with his humanity. He was often dissatisfied with his leadership and his life. He was human. But he was also self differentiated. he understood emotional intelligence. He didn’t let his emotions and personal issues to get in the way of what he was called to do. you’ve heard me say this before but at the end of the day we alone have the power in Christ to choose what who we serve and what we want out lives to reflect.

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