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The ‘Working With You, Not for You’ Principle

At the very first John R. Wooden Course, a young man posed this question: “Coach Wooden, next week I will be starting my first job as a manager. What advice can you give me?”

Coach Wooden replied, “Make sure the people in your department know that they’re working with you, not for you.”

The young man nodded enthusiastically and responded, “Coach Wooden, what other advice can you give me?”

Coach smiled, and then repeated slowly and carefully: “Make sure the people in your department know that they’re working with you, not for you.”

In his book Wooden on Leadership with Steve Jamison, John Wooden recounts an experience that had an impact on him with regard to that idea:

In the late 1960s, Wilt Chamberlain was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. At the press conference that introduced him to local writers and broadcasters, a reporter asked, “Wilt, do you think Lakers’ Coach Butch van Breda Kolff can handle you? It’s been said that you’re hard to handle.” I was at that press conference, and Wilt’s answer had a strong impact on me.

He told the reporter, “You ‘handle’ farm animals. You work with people. I am a person. I can work with anyone.”

Hearing his words reminded me that my book on coaching basketball, Practical Modern Basketball, which had recently been published, included a section called, “Handling of Players.”

I immediately rushed home, got out my notes and changed the title of that section to “Working with Players.” For me, that change in wording was extremely important because I believe an effective leader works with those individuals on the team.

Taking the idea of working with, not for a step further than Wilt was Coach’s father Joshua, who actually applied the with, not for idea when working with animals on the farm.

Coach told many stories about his father’s gentleness in different situations on the farm. For example, the family kept two plowing mules named Jack and Kate, the latter of which had a tendency of lying down in the field and refusing to work.

No matter how rough or frustrated young John got with Kate, she would not budge. Joshua, however, would walk over until he was within earshot of the mule and simply say, “Kate.” This alone would be enough to spur the animal back into action.

These three qualities define our ability to get along well with others.

No building is stronger than its foundation. No team is stronger than its foundation. The three blocks in the middle of the foundation of the Pyramid of Success are friendship, loyalty and cooperation.

They can only be strong if our teammates know they are working with us, not for us.

A good leader says our team, not my team.

Related: The Qualities of a Humble Leader

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.