One of the greatest college basketball coaches was John Wooden of UCLA. Wooden amassed 10 national championships, including 7 in a row; 88 consecutive victories; 38 straight playoff wins; 4 perfect seasons with only one loosing year - his first, in 41 years of coaching. Wooden summed up his 10 championships in the formula 10 = C + F + U (Conditioning + Fundamentals + Unity).
Wooden was known for his attention to detail. His leadership notes stated: “Leave nothing to chance. The difference in the championship and merely a good team is often the perfection of minor details.” Denny Crum told of his first day of practice with Wooden sat down all the players and had them take off their shoes and socks. He did the same. He then went through a careful demonstration of how to put on the socks, correctly to squeeze out the wrinkles and folds. He wanted the socks to be smoothed out all the way to the calves. He knew that socks that were not put on incorrectly could create blisters and blisters could hinder the performance of the player.
For shoes, he had the trainer measure each athlete’s foot—right and left—to ensure the sneakers fit properly with no slippage. On shoestrings, he showed players how to lace and tie them correctly so they would not come undone during a practice or a game. When he arrived at UCLA, the school had no practice uniforms. He had new practice uniforms ordered so players did not see sloppiness in themselves or each other. Whenever they travelled as a team they would always wear a shirt and tie, coat, and slacks. He not only wanted them to realize they were representing the university but also that being a UCLA Bruin was something special and they should conduct themselves accordingly.
He stopped providing bits of chocolate at halftime to players because he determined it left phlegm in their windpipes. He used orange slices which provided the same energy boost without the phlegm. Phlegm, like shoestrings that come undone or lumpy socks, can cause a distraction, which leads to errors that can lead to losses. At team meals, water was served at room temperature rather than ice cold to avoid the possibility of stomach cramps. All these items add up. It is not about being a perfectionist but being determined to constantly improve.
The relevant details vary between sports, just like they do in business or in different organizations. Wooden said the basics of success in leadership do not change much when it comes to the identification and perfection of little things and achievement of the big things we strive for. Effective leaders find ways to identify pertinent details that may give an incremental advantage. Success and not the devil, is in the details.
The detail oriented focus must come with balance as it is easy to become over focused on one item at the expense of those that are truly important. It is possible to focus so much on one small thing and perfecting it, that other more important items are missed completely.
For Wooden, success began with socks. Make sure you teach your team to do the little things right. There are no big things, only an accumulation of many little things. Remove a rivet and it may not impact an airplane. Remove enough of them and the wing will come off. As a leader you have to identify the correct rivets and determine how much attention has to be given to each. Once you have figured that out, seek to nourish the talent of your staff in the environment of perfected details. It is then that new heights can be reached. Always insist on doing things right as sloppiness breeds sloppiness. A casual approach to executing the job details will make sure a job is done poorly. Once one job is done poorly, it makes it easier to do the next job half-heartedly as well.
Wooden exemplified tremendous leadership and accomplished things in college basketball that we may never see duplicated. He shows that leadership starts with how you put on your socks.