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“Fairness is giving all people the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone alike.” –John Wooden

This statement was a cornerstone of Coach Wooden’s leadership style. The idea was made clear in Coach’s annual preseason letter to the team. The following is an excerpt from his letter to the team on August 1, 1972:

You may feel, at times, that I have double standards, as I certainly will not treat you all the same. However, I will attempt to give each player the treatment that he earns and deserves according to my judgment, and in keeping with what I consider to be in the best interest of the team. I know I will not be right in all of my decisions, but I will attempt to be both right and fair.

In his book Wooden on Leadership with Steve Jamison, Coach explains how he came to adapt this leadership style and approach to fairness:

At one point in my career, I told players I would treat them all the same way. This is what I told my own two children. I thought treating everyone the same was being fair and impartial.

Gradually I began to suspect that it was neither fair nor impartial. In fact, it was just the opposite. That’s when I began announcing that team members wouldn’t be treated the same or alike; rather, each one would receive the treatment they earned and deserved.

This practice may sound discriminatory or suggest partiality, but it is neither. A player who is working hard and productively for the group shouldn’t receive the same treatment as someone who is offering less.

In his later years of coaching, Coach Wooden had only three rules and many suggestions. The penalty for violating a team policy was not defined in advance. This gave Coach the ability to be firm and flexible and handle each situation on an individual basis.

In his book The Essential Wooden with Steve Jamison, Coach describes how his leadership style evolved:

When I started out, I ruled from the head, saw everything in black and white. A rule was a rule (and I had plenty); break it and suffer the consequences.

As my leadership skills evolved—improved—I recognized that alternatives and options were necessary and that I needed to factor in the ramifications of my disciplinary actions.

Good judgment was crucial; a sense of fairness, always important; balance essential, of course.

All this was hard to do, perhaps impossible, while I was locked into long lists of rules and regulations with automatic penalties applied to each and every one.

I certainly didn’t become wishy-washy, but I became adept at using discipline in a manner that was productive, that was applied appropriately, and that didn’t cause damage.

Logic and feelings—the head and the heart. Getting it right, achieving the proper balance, is one of the most challenging areas of leadership.

Wilfred Peterson, in his essay The Art of Leadership, put it this way: “The leader uses his heart as well as his head. After he has looked at the facts with his head, he lets his heart take a look, too.”

Related: The Art of Leadership

Photo by Steven Lelham / Unsplash

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.