A tribute to leadership in the name of Wooden

From the left, Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express, holds the leadership award he won. With him are Anderson Dean Judy Olian and John Wooden, for whom the award is named.
As fans and friends of UCLA’s legendary basketball coach all know, John Wooden has always considered himself a teacher, first and foremost. But no one would deny that it was his quiet, strong leadership that not only helped the Bruins win 10 national championships in 12 years, but also guided the young men under his supervision to become upright, hardworking citizens.

Endorsing that kind of character-based leadership, the Anderson School of Management created the John Wooden Global Leadership Award to honor a corporate leader who personifies the extraordinary standard of achievement, leadership and character associated with Wooden.

The winner of this year’s award, Kenneth Chenault, was honored by friends, supporters, faculty and students of the Anderson School late last month at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Chenault, who has served as chairman and CEO of American Express since 2001, received his award from Judy Olian, Anderson’s dean.

And Wooden himself was on hand to share some advice with Chenault and those present about how leaders need to respond in these tough and tense economic times:

“It’s a lot easier being a leader in times when things are going real well. It’s through adversity that one gets stronger,” said UCLA’s beloved coach. “You don’t show to your followers that you’re down. You have to keep a stiff upper lip, so to speak, and keep pushing ahead. We’ve gone through bad times in the past. … We are now. But we will endeavor. And you have to give the positive attitude to those under your supervision; otherwise, if everybody gets down, you might as well quit.”

Chenault, who had a passion for basketball, once aspired to be a professional athlete. He now heads a company with 66,000 employees and a presence in more than 130 countries. Photos by Rich Schmitt.
In accepting the award, Chenault, who today heads a world-renowned company with 66,000 employees and a presence in more than 130 countries, echoed Wooden’s message. While the current economic environment is probably the most challenging the CEO has ever faced, it also presents a range of opportunities. To succeed in a crisis, he said, one has to innovate, be creative and have resolve and a core set of values.

“Let me be very clear — competitively, I want to win every day,” said Chenault, whose parents, a dentist and dental hygienist, encouraged him to excel in academics and athletics. “But I want to win the right way, and I want our company and our people to feel proud about where they work and about what they contribute, and the difference that they can make in our society.”

Olian added her praise. “Ken’s leadership values, shared across all of American Express, are pretty simple: Never compromise your integrity; be a team player; have the courage to speak your convictions; persevere in the face of obstacles; and always work to be of service to others. That’s leadership in the Wooden tradition.”

Wooden, in a conversation with Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune magazine, explained further his philosophy about leadership:two121

“You have to develop, in my opinion, a feeling among all your followers that you care for them. Not just for the job they’re doing, but that you care for them personally,” the coach said. Then, “they will try a little harder to make you feel good about them. … You must be interested in the families of those under your supervision. Or, if there is any sickness or problems, let them know of your feelings for them. If you develop that type of respect for those under your supervision, I think the whole group’s going to accomplish a little more.”

Chenault told Wooden that what impressed him the most was the coach’s composure under pressure. “There were no histrionics,” Chenault said. “The impression it left on me was that, frankly, this person has it all together. He’s totally prepared. … One of the things I’ve talked to our organization about today is that to be an outstanding leader, particularly in a crisis, you must demonstrate composure at all times.”

Wooden said he had good reason not to lose his cool. “The greatest teacher is an example,” he said. “Like we mentioned, when I’m on the bench, I’m trying to stay calm, because I felt that if I lost my temper, I can’t expect my players not to.”