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John Wooden's Socks--Process over Results



John Wooden, the legendary coach of UCLA’s men’s basketball team from the late 1940’s into the 1970’s, still holds the record for most consecutive NCAA basketball championships in a row and the record for most consecutive victories in men’s basketball. Wooden coached when players did not enter the NBA until after they played four years of college ball. As a result, Wooden coached newly minted freshmen as well as seasoned seniors, many of whom were All Americans.


Every year Wooden would start the first practice of the year in the same way--teaching his players how to put on their socks and shoes correctly. He would have them eliminate every wrinkle in the sock, especially around the heel and little toe. He would then teach them to hold their socks up as they put on their shoes. The shoes had to be open wide and tightened up snugly at each eyelet. Finally, the shoe was tied and then double tied to make sure it was snug.


Wooden did this because he wanted to eliminate blisters which can be caused by a sock rubbing against the feet. He did not want a key player to be at less than full strength during a game. That blister might lead to a preventable loss.


Wooden was focusing on process, not on results. He did not tell his players not to get blisters; he taught them how to not get blisters. He did not tell them to win games; he taught them how to best prepare for games.


Good leaders focus on process, not results. If the process is good, the results will take care of themselves. When I was the Head of Duke School, we took mandated standardized tests every year. We wanted our students to do well on those tests, and we did not want to waste valuable class time teaching to the test. Instead, we focused on a pedagogical process that compelled students to read carefully, write for meaning, and tackle interesting problems that called for creative approaches.


Every year the students took these standardized tests they did better than their cohort group--students in private schools--in virtually every subtest even though other schools spent more time explicitly teaching how to take the test. By focusing on the learning process, the results of excellent test scores occurred.


If our students had not excelled at the tests, we would have revisited our teaching processes and made any necessary changes.


As a leader or a team, it is easy to get overly focused on results. You spend time worrying about the number of sales or the bottom line. If the results are not good, she often blames a team member for not working hard enough or being unskilled. Instead, it is best to look at results as a metric of your processes and approaches. If you are not getting the results you like, think of what processes you can change to help you achieve what you want to. This is not to say that sometimes you might not have to make a personnel change, but often thinking about how you are operating is a more fruitful path to better success.


It is worthwhile to spend time thinking of processes rather than focusing on results.


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