A Conversation with Steve Jamison

Dan Coughlin: Steve, you’ve co-authored three of my all-time favorite books: My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey by John Wooden with you; Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by John Wooden with you; and The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh with you and Craig Walsh. You’ve also co-authored several other books including Wooden on Leadership, The Essential Wooden, and Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis — Lessons from a Master by Brad Gilbert and you.

You have interviewed at length three of the greatest coaches in American history: John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA Division I titles; Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers; and Brad Gilbert, who coached tennis greats Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray.

What have you found that they had in common that made them successful?

Steve Jamison: Beyond a complete knowledge of their profession, they each have, or had, a brilliant capacity for deductive reasoning — an analytical mind. Each was able to clearly see a problem, challenge, or issue, and then figure out how to solve the problem.

Brad Gilbert is considered the greatest tennis coach in history. His strongest attribute is his ability to size up an opponent, which is the ‘problem’ at hand, and identify the key aspects of that problem. Then he can explain to the person he’s coaching how to attack the problem successfully. One of his great maxims is never let your opponent beat you with his strength. Figure out a way to force him to try and beat you with his weakness.

Bill Walsh had 20 years of experience as an assistant coach before he became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He worked under great coaches like Paul Brown, Marv Levy, and Al Davis. He had a very well developed ability to analyze the issues that the 49ers faced combined with years of experience in seeing how other coaches handled similar situations. When he took over the team they had only won two games the year before. By the end of his third year they won the Super Bowl.

When John Wooden took over as the head coach at UCLA in 1948 the team had only won three conference games the year before. In his first year the team won the division championship. He saw what needed to be fixed and went about fixing it.

Coughlin: What differences were there between them?

Jamison: They were born in three different generations. Coach Wooden will turn 100 years old on October 14, 2010. Bill Walsh would be 78 right now. Brad Gilbert is 48. So they have some natural generational differences between them. For example, John Wooden is much more old-fashioned. He has more of an old school approach. He doesn’t drink and never swears. He has a very strict personal code. Bill Walsh was more of a regular guy. He liked to have a glass of wine, he swore occasionally, and he enjoyed playing blackjack once in a while. So they are two different types of guys. Brad — he loves Metallica. Coach Wooden loves Lawrence Welk. Vast differences.

However, Wooden and Walsh had very similar leadership styles. They were both very much ethics-based coaches who demonstrated real care and concern for the members of their teams. John Wooden said that next to his own family his players were the people closest to him. He calls his former players his extended family. Bill Walsh didn’t describe it exactly that way, but as long as his players and staff members didn’t cross him he treated each of them with a great deal of respect and dignity. However, when someone did try to undermine his authority he did not hesitate to let the person go. He was very ruthless in that sense.

Coughlin: In my opinion, you have become the best author in the world at extracting powerful insights from highly successful athletic coaches. When you spend time with a great sports coach, how do you create an effective connection with the person that allows you to garner such powerful insights from them? What is the process you use when you craft the questions you are going to ask of these individuals?

Jamison: I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked with three of the greatest coaches in American history. I didn’t have a plan laid out to write books with these three people. It happened little by little. My first book was with Brad Gilbert. We happened to belong to the same tennis club in California. He was a pro out playing guys like McEnroe and Borg. I was just a recreational player. We got to know each other and the more I got to know him the more I realized that his insights and coaching methods could make for a great book. Winning Ugly became the biggest selling tennis book worldwide in the last 25 years.

Soon after I interviewed John Wooden for an article I was writing. I thought about what Coach Wooden said and I felt very strongly that it was valuable and would make for a very good book. It took me six months to convince him to work with me to write the book, but since then we’ve written several together. He and I get along very well. Sometimes he will say to me, ‘steve, you write it better than I say it.’ I say, ‘No, that’s not true. I’ve just put your ideas down on paper and organized them for the reader.’

There’s no secret to the questions I ask. I don’t see myself as a great interviewer. I have a genuine interest in what the person has to say, and I’m very curious about their ideas. The other big thing is trust. If the other person trusts me then he will be more forthcoming. Also, I have a passing knowledge of sports, but I don’t ask extremely detailed questions about why the coach did a certain thing in a certain situation on a certain day. I don’t go into the crazy details of sports. I’m more interested in the person’s ideas regarding leadership and important events in their lives than in discussing X’s and O’s. The real key is to show interest in what the other person has to say.

The one value I will take credit for is my ability to take what they say and put it down on paper in a way that is accurate and reflects their style, sensibility, and substance. As you read the books, you don’t sense Steve Jamison is in there at all. You feel as though the coach is talking to you directly. These coaches are the stars, obviously not me.

I received an e-mail from a reader who told me he was at an airport bookstore. He had already decided that he was not going to buy any leadership books. He said coaches who tell business people how to do their jobs drive him crazy. Then he started reading My Personal Best by John Wooden and me. He wrote, ‘I thought John Wooden was standing there next to me talking to me.’ I took that as a big compliment. He bought it, too.

When I was writing my first book with John Wooden I sent my dad an early manuscript. He said, ‘steve, everything John Wooden says is pure gold. Don’t mess it up.’ So I’ve always tried to stay out of these books as much as possible. Readers want to learn from these coaches. My job is to present in its purest form.

Coughlin: The title of your newest book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, by you and Bill Walsh is intriguing to me. I have witnessed a great debate over the years among business managers about how to generate great business results. Some believe and say, “If we do all the right things, then eventually we will achieve great results.” Other managers believe and say, “We have to set audacious goals in order to achieve great results.” Based on all of your work with these three great coaches, what are your thoughts on this management debate?

Jamison: I tend to repeat what they believe. Bill Walsh said the score takes care of itself. And he really meant that. In our conversations, he explained how he placed his emphasis on doing things the right way. His primary focus when he took over the 49ers was not on telling everyone when the team would win the Super Bowl. He talked a great deal about his expectations for everyone in the organization. He wanted players, coaches, and staff members to focus on executing the details of their roles.

John Wooden has some maxims on this topic that I really like. He says, ‘Little things make big things happen,’ and ‘There are no big things, only an accumulation of little things done well.’ He never said, ‘We will win a championship this year,’ or ‘Our goal is to go undefeated.’ He never talked like that. He never announced an audacious goal such as winning a national championship. He focused on doing the right things right now.

For example, he started every season by explaining to the players at the first practice how to put on their socks. This was not a symbolic act or some kind of joke. He really wanted the players to put on their socks properly in order to avoid blisters, pain, and injury that could ultimately affect the team’s performance in the games. In the end no one will ever match John Wooden’s achievements of four perfect seasons, 10 championships in 12 years, and seven championships in a row. Did I mention the 88-game winning streak? However, he never focused on the achievements. He focused on the process necessary to achieve those things. Or, more accurately, the process necessary to achieve success as he defined it: peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.

Brad Gilbert was somewhat the same. He worked with tennis players to focus on the little things they could do to be successful. Andre Agassi credits Brad a great deal in his new book, Open, for dramatically improving his performance.

These coaches focused primarily on doing what it takes to be successful rather than on talking about some achievement they expected the group to accomplish.

Coughlin: Some business executives believe they should include their employees in a discussion on determining the corporate values for guiding behaviors in their organizations. Other executives feel it is his or her responsibility to decide on the values by himself or herself and then to communicate to all employees the expected values/behaviors. Based on your highly in-depth research of massively successful athletic organizations, what are your thoughts on how executives should develop and communicate the expected values/beliefs for employees throughout their organization?

Jamison: At the beginning of every season John Wooden handed his players a sheet of paper called his Pyramid of Success. This outlined very clearly the personal qualities he believed in. There are 15 personal qualities, or building blocks, in his Pyramid of Success. They include things like industriousness, self-control, enthusiasm, team spirit, poise, and confidence. He told the players these were the things he expected from them and that they could expect from him. He didn’t test them on it. He didn’t ask them to repeat the personal qualities back to him. However, during the season if a player demonstrated one of the personal qualities, Coach Wooden might say something like, ‘Yes, that’s what I like to see, real enthusiasm like in the Pyramid of Success.’ That’s not a quote, but it reflects his message.

Bill Walsh had a very clear Standard of Performance defined in his mind when he took the job as the head coach of the 49ers. It includes directives such as, ‘Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.’

To answer your question, there was not a discussion with the players, assistant coaches, or staff members about the values or expected behaviors. This was not a topic that was up for debate with John Wooden or Bill Walsh.

John Wooden and Bill Walsh really focused on using the Four Laws of Teaching/Learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. This was how they instilled their values into their teams.

However, they were both open to ideas on how to achieve the desired objectives. For example, even though Bill Walsh had a brilliant mind for offensive football, he was always open to hearing ideas from players or other coaches if they had something that might improve the offense. In that sense he was very flexible.

Coughlin: You have studied, observed, interacted with, and written about John Wooden and his approach to leadership and coaching more than any other person. As you look across the broad spectrum of his ideas, what do you think are the two to three most important concepts from John Wooden that business executives and managers should try to remember and implement?

Jamison: If I had an hour to answer that question, I could fill it up. If I had two hours, I would include everything from the first hour and then fill up the second hour. If I had two days, I could fill it up.

If I have to select just two things, then one of them would be his attention to details that I mentioned earlier. A few years ago he and I were in his hotel suite at the NCAA Final Four tournament. A waiter came in to deliver his meal. The waiter did all of the little things the right way. Coach Wooden started chuckling to himself. After the waiter left, Coach said, ‘I was smiling because I get such a kick out of people doing the little things well.’ Then he said, ‘If there is a secret to success that may be it: little things done well.’

Coach Wooden never said things like that — declaring such and such the secret of success. He never spoke with a loud voice and made big pronouncements about what generates success. When he said it that night, I reached across the table, pulled out my notebook, and wrote it down. It seemed then and it still does as a profound statement from a very successful man.

The second important concept I would say in answer to your question, which is even more important than the first, is his definition of success. On his Pyramid of Success, John Wooden wrote ‘success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.’ He doesn’t mention bonuses, stock options, cars, or money. His focus is on doing the intrinsic work that generates extrinsic achievements as a byproduct. He teaches us to take our eye off of the extrinsic achievement and focus on achieving perfection in our area of work. If a group of people in a business can really buy into that, the organization would be super charged. The key is to start with the details. And before that, to start with teaching the organization to focus on intense effort properly applied as the highest goal.

It took me a long time to really grasp the true meaning of what Coach Wooden was talking about, but now I get it. The whole key is to do whatever you need to do as well as you can do it. Let go of winning or losing the ‘trophy’ and focus your attention on doing what it takes to perform at your highest level in ways that serve the organization.

Coughlin: You got to know Bill Walsh very well. If you were giving advice based on your conversations with Bill Walsh to a business executive taking over a poorly performing organization or business unit, what would that advice be?

Jamison: My advice would be to do what he did. First, know what you are doing. Know the business, know the industry, and know your customers. Bill was on the fringes waiting for his chance to be a head coach for so long that when he finally got it he knew exactly what he was doing. You can’t fake it. If you don’t know your business, then it’s going to become pretty obvious very quickly.

The other thing is you have to have the determination and courage to hang in there. Bill couldn’t get the name people he wanted to help him run the 49ers. So he brought in a group of coaches that he knew really well and that he could communicate with.

You also have to be able to endure pain. When you are coming up from the bottom you are going to deal with a lot of pain. Bill did have some emotional meltdowns during those 10 years in San Francisco, but he endured. When he talked about his second year with the 49ers, he said, ‘There’s no sure way to get to success, but you do have to go through the town called failure in order to get there. You have to be able to endure pain.’

Bill is the only NFL coach to retire after winning a Super Bowl and stay retired. He told me, ‘I gave myself zero points for winning and negative points for losing. I could never get ahead on points.’ Ultimately, that is what drove him out of the game. John Wooden, on the other hand, said, ‘You can’t let the score determine who you are. You have to determine who you are. Losing hurts, but it didn’t change my opinion of who I am, nor did winning.’

Coughlin: If you were giving advice based on your conversations with Bill Walsh and John Wooden to an executive who has run a successful organization for several years but now wants to take the organization to a significantly higher performance level, what advice would you give that person?

Jamison: Keep preparing and improving. Focus on improvement. Both of those coaches won multiple championships, but they kept preparing and always looking for improvement. One difference between them was Bill talked a great deal about the challenge of having to deal with success. He said that the Success Disease was something he had to work very hard to overcome with his players after they won a Super Bowl. He talked about how easy it was for the players to become overconfident and feel that they had arrived and no longer needed to strive for mastery.

On the other hand, John Wooden said getting to the top was much harder than being at the top. He said when you are on top you attract good people to you. He didn’t think in terms of levels. His focus was always the same: take what you have and maximize it. He said, “Whether a leader’s organization has talent to spare or is spare on talent, the goal is the same: to get the most out of what you’ve got.”

Coughlin: Brad Gilbert has coached some of the most successful tennis players in history including Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray. If you were giving advice based on your conversations with Brad Gilbert to an entrepreneur who runs a one-person business, what advice would you give that person?

Jamison: Brad has a natural tendency to always put the player’s interest first. Players responded very well to that. When Andre Agassi was turned down for a date twice by Steffi Graf and was ready to give up, Brad said, ‘When did you start taking no for an answer.’ Brad had Agassi first on his radar, and he put himself second. To this day he only says good things about the people he coached. My advice to an entrepreneur would be to always put the customer first. And before that, put your team first, the people on it. Don’t make yourself more important than the customer. Don’t make yourself more important than your players.

The connection between sports and business is that people skills are just a notch below the importance of knowing what you are doing. You do have to know your business, but technical skills without people skills is a formula for disaster.

About Steve Jamison

Visit Steve at www.stevejamison.com. Steve Jamison is a best-selling author and America’s preeminent authority on the leadership philosophy of UCLA’s legendary Coach John Wooden whose basketball dynasty won ten March Madness national championships. For over a decade Mr. Wooden and Mr. Jamison have collaborated on projects including six best-selling books; an award-winning PBS television special, WOODEN: Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind; and numerous personal appearances including Disney Resorts International, General Mills, City National Bank, UCLA Anderson School of Management, Waste Connections, Inc, Barbara Sinatra’s Children’s Hospital, and more. He is a popular lecturer and the author of the new book, The Score Takes Care of Itself (Portfolio 2009) by Bill Walsh with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh. Mr. Jamison serves as a consultant to the UCLA/Anderson School of Business and its John Wooden Global Leadership Program.