Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about John Wooden

The greatest scorer in the history of NBA basketball in the United States. Kareem, formerly Lew Alcindor. An intelligent, very thoughtful person. On and off the basketball court.

He, like so many other players at UCLA – University of California Los Angeles – who played under coach John Wooden, was greatly influenced by Wooden

In this talk Abdul-Jabbar speaks about the great strengths of John Wooden. Not only in how he formed great basketball players and teams. But more importantly how he formed young men. And they were as players at UCLA young men between the ages of 18 and 22.

Why is this post listed under Germany instead of the USA? Because Wooden’s approach to coaching is more indicative of the German leadership logic than to the American.

Wooden did not coach his players during the game. He gave only some very general instructions. Instead, he allowed to apply what he had taught them during practice.

John Wooden always referred to himself as a basketball teacher. By the way, the official professional name for a soccer coach in the German Bundesliga is Fussball-Lehrer, literally soccer teacher.

The Madman and the Bomb

The scene from the White House south lawn on August 9, 1974, is vivid in the nation’s memory. That morning, President Richard Nixon famously boarded Marine One for the final time, put on a wide grin and fired off a final double-V to the assembled crowd.

But one of the most interesting aspects of that day is what didn’t happen on the south lawn: Even though Nixon had more than two hours left in his tenure, the most critical tool of the modern presidency had already been taken away from him. He never noticed it, but the nuclear “football” didn’t travel with him as he boarded the helicopter, and later, Air Force One for his flight back to California.

Moreover, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them.

Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon. Nixon himself had stoked official fears during a meeting with congressmen during which he reportedly said,

“I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Senator Alan Cranston had phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”

Shanghai … wait, what?

Referring again to this article in the New York Times about how a few major U.S. companies are handling the post-Covid work environment. With some employees returning full-time to the office. Others are working exlusively or almost excluisively from home. And many dividing their time between office and home.

“Though most evidence that remote workers are at a disadvantage is anecdotal, at least one study, led by researchers at Stanford University, suggests they are less likely to be promoted than their in-office peers. In the experiment researchers randomly assigned workers at a large travel agency in Shanghai to work remotely or in the office for nine months. Though the remote workers were 13 percent more productive, putting in more hours and making more calls per minute, they were promoted about half as often as their in-office peers.”

“They can get forgotten,” said Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and one of the study’s authors.

But wait, what, Professor Bloom? That’s Shanghai. Those are Chinese. What does anecdotal evidence from China tell us about how Americans benefit or lose out if and when working remotely? Stanford University !

Face-time with management

A fascinating article in the New York Times about how a few major U.S. companies are handling the post-Covid work environment. Some employees are returning full-time to the office. Others are working exlusively, or almost excluisively from home. And many are splitting the time between office and home.

There are, of course, consequences for each choice. And in the U.S. some companies are concerned about reduced opportunities for those folks who are less present in the office. Why? Reduced face-time with management.

This is a clear statement about the nature of leadership in the U.S. business environment: Get face-time with your boss !

If you collaborate with Germans, ask them if less face-time with management would be a disadvantage or an advantage. And when you do, read to them, as best you can this, well-know, German figure of speech: “Gehe nicht zu Deinem Fürst, wenn Du nicht gerufen wirst.”

Phonetically: Gay nisht tsu die nem first, venn doo nisht gay-roofen veerst.

John Wooden – Basketball Teacher

In this very brief video, Bill Walton, describes the coaching philosophy of John Wooden. In the sense of how Wooden coached during the game.

John Wooden coached men’s basketball team at UCLA – The University of California at Los Angeles. He was most likely the most successful of all coaches at the university level.

Wooden did not coach his players during the game. He gave some general instructions. Instead, he allowed to apply what he had taught them during practice.

John Wooden always referred to himself as a basketball teacher. By the way, the official professional name for a soccer coach in the German Bundesliga is Fussball-Lehrer, literally soccer teacher.

Bill Walton was one of John Wooden’s, and basketball’s, greatest players. His finest game was the 1973 collegiate championship in which he scored 44 points, make 21 of 22 field goals.

“The Office”

The Office“ is an American comedy television series adapted from a British series of the same name. The series depicts the everyday lives of office employees in a branch of a fictional paper company.

The office’s manager, Michael Scott, constantly interrupts his workers in an attempt to inspire them and win their approval. His efforts usually fail in a humorous way. Although this is a comedy, the manager’s frequent attempts to keep updated on his employees’ work and interact with them personally is similar to actual office environments.

Lincoln visits troops

President Abraham Lincoln was know for making unscheduled visits to Union officers and troops. Successful American leaders never lose touch with their people. Conversely, capable team members find ways to remain in constant communication with their team lead and other important members of management.

Fill the vacuum

I supported Stefan and his team for well over a year, as part of a larger organization. He was in his early 40s, spoke great English, had a clever sense of humor, managed a team with roughly one hundred people in Germany and the U.S. each. His staff of seven managed well the two hundred. Stefan travelled to the U.S. three to four times per quarter.

During dinner after a two-day workshop Stefan turned to me and said: „John, I get the feeling whenever I come to the U.S. that my people here don‘t even know who I am.“ He had a funny kind of smile on his face, perplexed.

I sensed what was going on. „Well, Stefan, when you come over who do you typically meet with?“ He went through the list: his direct reports, senior-level management in other departments, a handful of selected subject-area experts in testing, manufacturing, supply chain, and two or three German delegates to the U.S.

„Am I leaving a vacuum?”

My response: „Remember what we‘ve discussed over the last few months about American leadership logic. If you‘re not present in the eyes and minds of your team here, they will automatically orient themselves towards the strongest of your American direct reports. They won‘t have any other alternative.“

„Am I leaving a vacuum which is being filled?“, Stefan asked. I nodded. Both of us had gotten through our burgers, were eating our fries and drinking our juices. The background music was loud, but we could discuss further, nonetheless. We were in a college town, it was the middle of the Fall semester. Thursday evening. The place was full with students, faculty and university administration types.

„Americans like to know who their team lead is, and the strategic direction“, I said. Visiting as often as Stefan did was good. „But, you have to take the time to visit the troops, as we Americans say.“ See MBWA

“Your organization and people.”

„Town Hall meetings and such?“ I responded with a yes. „And have open office hours at set times and make sure folks know ahead of your visit. If you can fit it into your schedule, got out for lunch and dinner with members of your organization. Give them a chance to interact with you in an informal setting. They‘ll bring up what‘s on their mind if they feel comfortable with you.“

Stefan paused, ate a few more fries, took a sip of his juice and responded: „Yeah, but I don‘t want to get too involved. That could bother my direct reports. I mean, it‘s their organization, their people. I don‘t want to interfere in their work.“

That was pure form German leadership logic. You see it in the German military, where an officer from one level has to formally ask an officer at the next lower level for permission to visit that officer‘s troops. An American manager reserves the right to reach out to anyone in their organization, at anytime, and almost anywhere, with just about any question.

„You determine to what degree you get involved.”

My advice to Stefan was that he would in no way be perceived by his American reports as getting too involved in their work. On the contrary, they would be very happy to have a boss who is involved, who takes the time to become familiar with their teams, their work, the details.

„You determine to what degree you get involved, Stefan. At a minimum be present, ask questions, listen carefully, respond to their questions, observe. Most importantly, take what we are discussing now to your American direct reports and decide together the appropriate level of interaction you should have when you‘re in the U.S.“

I then added: „And while your at it, keep your eyes open for American colleagues in senior-level management who might be applying their leadership logic to their German teams, and possibly causing some irritation by perhaps being too present when they are in Germany.“

Stefan smiled in a mischievous way. „What?“, I asked. „I can think of at least three Americans, all first-rate team leads, who do just that.“ We laughed.

U.S. Army 22-100

How a society fundamentally defines the everyday working relationship between leader and led – between two levels of hierarchy – is imbedded in how that society defends itself. In its military.

If that working relationship does not function well, if it fails, not only is the respective mission in jeopardy, the very lives of the soldiers are at risk. Defining and managing the line between strategy and tactics is in the military context a matter of life and death.

The American military tradition in practice involves a close working relationship between leader and led, between strategy and tactics.

The U.S. Army Field Manual 22-100 states: „Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction, and motivation. Purpose gives soldiers a reason why they should do difficult things under dangerous, stressful circumstances. Direction shows what must be done. Through motivation, leaders give soldiers the will to do everything they are capable of doing to accomplish a mission. Effective leaders use both direct and indirect influence to lead.“

Mission Command. The U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-0 states: „Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based on mission orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative, acting aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission within the commander’s intent.“

Army Leadership Doctrine: U.S. Army Field Manual 6-22, Part 3 describes a direct leader as someone who “influences others person-to- person …. instructs, recognizes achievement, and encourages hard work.”

A direct leader carries out the goals of higher-level commanders on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis. Because higher-level leaders cannot dictate the specific actions that should be taken in every possible situation, direct leaders must act independently. However, their actions, and those of their subordinates, always support the commander’s intent:

“At the direct level, a platoon leader knows what a battalion commander wants done, not because the lieutenant was briefed personally, but because the lieutenant understands the commander’s intent two levels up. The intent creates a critical link between the organizational and direct leadership levels.”

Section 7-26 distinguishes between long-term, strategic intent – which is a written statement indicating the goals of the operation – and day-to-day intent, which is communicated more informally from the direct leader to his subordinates. “Leaders in command positions use commander’s intent to convey purpose. The commander’s intent is a clear, concise statement of what the force must do and the conditions the force must meet to succeed with respect to the enemy, terrain, and desired end state.”

It states further: “Besides purpose and motivation, (direct) leaders influence also consists of direction. Direction deals with how a goal, task, or mission is to be achieved. Subordinates do not need to receive guidance on the details of execution in all situations. The skilled leader will know when to provide detailed guidance and when to focus only on purpose, motivation, or inspiration.”

Omar M. Bradley, an American four-star general during the Second World War, summarized the relationship between soldier and non-commissioned officer in the following way: “In battle, the American soldier wants to know that the job is going to be done right, with no unnecessary casualties. The non-commissioned officer is supposed to be the best soldier in the platoon and he is supposed to know how to perform all the duties expected of him. The American soldier expects his sergeant to be able to teach him how to do his job. And he expects even more from his officers.”

In addition to teaching and directing their subordinates, direct leaders must constantly supervise the work of their soldiers. FM 6-22 points out that effective supervision requires leaders to get to know their subordinates very well. “Proper supervision is essential to ensuring mission accomplishment to standard. It is an integral part of caring for soldiers. The better they know their unit and subordinates, the more they can strike a balance for finding the details.”

Although constantly „looking over their shoulders” is not something that American direct leaders should do, they are expected to tell subordinates both what is to be accomplished (mission intent) and how it is to be accomplished (instructions). The detailed instructions direct leaders give to subordinates is [not are? The instructions; plural.] a key hallmark of American military leadership.

“Stop micromanaging”

Harvard Business Review. “Stop Being Micromanaged.” Amy Gallo, September 22, 2011.

There are managers who have very high standards who like some degree of control. They pay a great deal of attention to detail and exercise some degree of control, but they don’t stifle those who work for them.

Then there are pathological micromanagers who need to make it clear to themselves and others that they are in charge. These are the bosses that give you little to no autonomy, insist they be involved in every detail of your work, and are more concerned about specifics, such as font size, rather than the big picture.” 

It is counterproductive to fight against micromanagement. Gallo suggests: “Make upfront agreements. Talk to your boss before a project starts about how she will be involved. Try to agree on standards and basic approach.

Explain what you think the ideal plan of action is and then ask for her input. Be sure you understand upfront what the guiding principles are for the work, not just the tactical elements. These principles are what you should be discussing with your boss. 

The author recommends: “Remind your boss that she is better off not getting involved in the minutiae because her time and effort are more valuable to the big picture. And keep your boss in the loop.”