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Coach John Wooden Pyramid of Success

Why Initiative Is an Essential Leadership TraitOn the second tier of the Pyramid of Success is initiative, a valuable character trait of a leader, and an essential quality for any team if they are going to perform near to their capability.

A great leader not only has initiative as an individual character trait, but also coaches his or her team or organization in a manner that creates and encourages initiative from all team members.

A great leader creates new leaders.

Related: How to Set a Good Example

Coach Wooden described the importance of giving his players the ability to take initiative:

“Do not tie them down so rigidly that you take away their initiative. They must have some freedom of movement, but must react to the initiative of a teammate in order to keep floor balance.

“Give players the opportunity to achieve without the fear of failure.”

The communication style of the leader will either encourage or discourage initiative by the people he or she supervises. In the book How to Be Like Coach Wooden by Pat Williams, Coach Wooden described his method:

“Be slow to correct and quick to commend.”

“I never wanted to teach through fear, punishment or intimidation. Pride is a better motivator than fear.

Related: 10 Traits of an Effective Teacher

“Fear may work in the short term to get people to do something, but over the long run, I believe personal pride is a much greater motivator. It produces far better results that last for a much longer time.”

The leader encourages initiative when he holds people accountable and corrects rather than criticizes. In his book with Jay Carty, Coach Wooden One-on-One, Coach Wooden describes the difference:

“Criticism and correction differ especially when it comes to methods and motives. Criticism puts someone down. Correction means I want to help.

“Be slow to correct and quick to commend. No one likes correction, but we learn from it. If we commend before we correct, the person will accept the correction better. But we must listen before we correct. There is usually another side to every story. If we listen to others, they will be more apt to listen to us.

Related: 3 Rules for Giving Positive, Purposeful Criticism

“It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one is concerned with who gets the credit.”

“It is very important how correction is given. We must be careful how we do it. We don’t want those being corrected to lose face. Here are some good tips: Make it meaningful, but use judgment. Don’t fly off the handle and be quick to correct. Do it with tact. If we just let fly, it is more likely to be viewed as criticism than as correction.

“Approval is a greater motivator than disapproval, but we have to disapprove on occasion when we correct. It’s necessary. I only make corrections after I have proved to the individual that I highly value them. If they know we care for them, our correction won’t be seen as judgment. I also tried to never make it personal.”

The leader who encourages initiative has faith in people. He believes in them, and thus draws out the best in them. If the initiative of the team member works out, the leader gives away the credit. If it doesn’t, the leader takes the blame.

As Coach would often remind us, “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one is concerned with who gets the credit.”

Related: The Art of Leadership

Craig Impelman
As Coach Wooden’s grandson-in-law, Craig Impelman had the opportunity to learn Coach’s teachings firsthand and wrote about those lessons for his site, He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.