Wisdom on Mentoring from the Wizard of Westwood

September 8, 2015
Mike Stallard

Recently I spoke with Don Yeager, longtime associate editor for Sports Illustrated turned entrepreneur and corporate speaker. Don co-authored a fantastic book on mentoring with the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden (aka the wizard of Westwood) titled A Game Plan for Life. Don was mentored by Coach Wooden for more than 12 years.

Here are four takeaways from our conversation.

1. Just Ask

After sitting in on an extraordinary meeting in which coach Wooden mentored Shaquille O’Neal, Don asked the coach what it took to be mentored by him. Wooden replied, “just ask.” Don learned that fewer people asked to be mentored by Wooden than you would expect and all Don had to do in order to have that one-on-one mentoring relationship with the remarkable coach, teacher and human being was “just ask.” The point is that if you’re interested in being mentored by someone, don’t hesitate to ask.

2. Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

Coach Wooden was known for focusing on preparation. His well-know axiom, "failing to prepare is preparing to fail", applied to more than just sports.  He told Don that his job as mentee would require coming prepared with a list of things he wanted to learn. As a result, Don would spend two to three days preparing to meet with Coach Wooden. If you’re asking someone to mentor you, be sure to spend sufficient time preparing in advance of each meeting and developing an agenda that lists what you would like to learn and processing what you already covered together.

3. For a Season

Don told me that he had mentors who were seasonal. This type of mentor focuses on sharing his or her wisdom in a particular area. For example, one of Don’s seasonal mentors is John Maxwell, the leadership writer and speaker. If, like Don, you may have a very specific area you would like to be mentored in, working with a seasonal mentor may be the best approach.

4. Don’t Forget Less Than Obvious Mentors

While writing A Game Plan for Life, Coach Wooden told Don what he learned from various mentors he’d had throughout his life, including the obvious ones such such as Wooden’s father and his former basketball coaches. Less obvious were individuals Wooden considered to be mentors, even if they had not met, such as Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.

Coach Wooden was a voracious reader, having been taught by his father, Joshua, the value of reading great books. And read he did. Abraham Lincoln, probably the most written about American president, was a Coach Wooden favorite. He was also inspired by the life of Mother Teresa, especially her commitment to serving others based on the belief that a life not lived for others is a life not lived.

Wooden described his beloved wife, Nell, as a mentor, too. Don told me that Coach Wooden felt Nell kept him grounded. In A Game Plan for Life, Coach Wooden describes how Nell taught him that trusting others and being trustworthy were both essential to every meaningful relationship. Consider the people in your life.  Could one of them become a mentor?

Each of us needs mentors and coaches over the course of our lives to continue learning and growing. Hopefully you will find the advice from Coach Wooden and Don Yaeger to be as helpful as I did. To learn more, I encourage you to read John Wooden and Don Yeager's A Game Plan for Life.

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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