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complacency

“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”
–John Wooden

This popular quote from Coach Wooden summarized the key component of his continuous success. He commented on the idea in an interview in 2005:

Some people change when they acquire power, authority and material possessions. A person with character won’t change. Character is what you really are inside. Some people have great individual ability, whether it’s physical or mental. They may reach great financial success. But if they don’t have character, they won’t stay there very long. They’ll go down fast and you’ll find the road down is much faster than the road up.

Coach felt that complacency was the key character flaw that led to a lack of continued success. He summed up his perspective in his book Wooden on Leadership:

The infection of success is often fatal. Most people work harder on the way to the top than when they arrive. If you’re fortunate enough to get there, do not be swayed. Allow success to turn your head and you’ll be looking failure right in the face.

You can’t make up for poor effort today by working harder tomorrow. We kid ourselves: “I’ll buckle down to business tomorrow and work twice as hard.” No. If you can work “twice as hard” tomorrow, it means you’ve been holding something back, not giving 100 percent today. I want 100 percent today and tomorrow.

Continuous success has two areas where complacency cannot exist: work effort and a desire to improve. Improvement only happens when you continue to learn. The humble leader listens, learns and is eager to learn more. As Coach often said:

When you’re through learning, you’re through. Learning is a leader’s lifetime pursuit. You must never reach the point of self-delusion that suggests you know it all. Remind yourself, “It’s what I learn after I know it all that counts.”

When Coach was asked how he prevented his teams from becoming complacent once they started winning multiple championships, his response was short and to the point:

I tried to teach today is the only day in which you have control and what happened yesterday will not have any control over what happens today, except learning from it. You’ll never know a thing you didn’t learn from someone in the past; yes, you learn from the past, but it’s not going to affect what you do today—tomorrow will be affected by what you do today. Today is the only day that amounts to anything, and I tried to use that philosophy with my players to try to just become a little better each day.

Related: The Importance of Constant Self-Improvement

Photo by @Stephanie.kauffman/Twenty20.com

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, www.woodenswisdom.com. He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.