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Coach John Wooden Pyramid of Success
The Importance of Having Humility

“Talent is God given, be humble; fame is man-given, be thankful; conceit is self-given, be careful.”

This famous quote by John Wooden reflected his attitude on how to approach life and leadership.

The first part of this quote—talent is God given, be humble—emphasized a character trait that Coach Wooden thought was critical: humility.

It is important that we don’t confuse humility with being self-demeaning. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

The key behaviors of a person with true humility are that they are unpretentious, unassuming and down to earth. A person with humility does not ask for special favors.

Related: Real Success Begins Where Selfishness Ends

In the Pat Williams book How to Be Like Coach Wooden, former Montclair State University Coach Ollie Johnson recalled attending a coaching clinic with Coach Wooden:

At the coaching clinic, I was standing in line with Coach to register—a process that could take as long as two hours. Joe Vancisin, who was running the organization, saw Coach and gestured for him to come around the line. He waved Joe off and said to me, “I’m no better than anyone else.”

Coach Wooden’s track record of being unpretentious is well documented and reflected in how generous he always was with his time.

In the same Pat Williams book, Rick Adelman, then coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, recalled his experience:

I was coaching at Chemeketa Junior College in Salem, Oregon. I heard that John Wooden was coming to town, so I called to ask if he’d come to our campus and talk to my players. We had 200 people show up, and Coach spoke to them for over an hour and then he answered questions. He was such a gentleman and treated all of us with such respect.

A leader who has humility is appreciative of praise but keeps it in proper perspective and is always eager to share the credit for a job well done.

A leader who has humility is open and eager to listen to criticism and improve.

Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”

In the dictionary, pride and humility are listed as antonyms. Coach Wooden felt both were necessary. He often said pride is a better motivator than fear.

He wanted his players to have pride (self-satisfaction) in a job well done. He also wanted them to have the humility to recognize this did not make them better than someone else and that there was still much to learn and always plenty of room to improve.

Related: The Importance of Constant Self-Improvement

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.