Wooden Wednesdays: Cooperation

Note: this is the fifth of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

John Wooden’s final block in the base of his Pyramid of Success is COOPERATION.

Wooden says, “Much can be accomplished when no one cares about who gets the credit.”

And: “Make sure the people you lead feel they’re working with you, not for you.”

Wooden challenges coaches and leaders to make listening to ideas and incorporating them a foundational part of their leadership style. Why? Because a dictatorial, top-down leader can’t possibly have all of the best ideas. Even with the leader’s vastly greater experience, the ideas of the group will be vastly better than the leader’s alone. I can personally vouch for my ensemble of high school students regularly coming to superior conclusions than I can arrive at on my own.

It’s hard for a smart, experienced, strong leader to embrace this. Particularly when sufficient time is a barrier, as it often is, we conductors can revert to just telling our singers what to do, completely neglecting cooperation.

Wooden, in both behavior and in his writing, calls us to do better: in all successes, we must share the credit with all – that’s cooperation. But as leaders, we must shoulder any blame ourselves. “A strong and secure leader accepts blame and gives the credit. A weak insecure leader gives blame and takes credit,” Wooden says.

Of course, you are still the leader and often the educator in the room. You must take the time to inform them of options, make decisions yourself when necessary, and improve their musical instincts at every chance. Wooden famously worked his players exceedingly hard on mastering the fundamentals of basketball and life. But even when you are teaching and leading, you can make cooperation a central part of your rehearsal process.

How do you teach cooperation? By example. Don’t make musical decisions always top-down. Ask questions, respect answers, try ideas. Often  you’ll settle on the one that you had planned, but sometimes a better or truer musical idea will come from the group. In concert, make clear in actions and words that you and your singers are collaborators.

Sometimes you can teach musicianship and cooperation at the same time. Try an idea that you know will fail – let a student’s idea fly. When it doesn’t work, they will add that experience to their musical knowledge, they will know that you valued their ideas, and the entire group will become closer through the cooperative learning.

Wooden wisely placed cooperation as a vital foundational element in his pyramid of success. Without it, your singers might perform well out of loyalty to you or each other, or because of their innate enthusiasm. With true cooperation, every member of your choir will become a collaborative contributor to their own success; their commitment will be innate and potent when they have cooperative ownership in the success.