Two Leadership Lessons From Bill Walsh

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Bill Walsh is the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and a Pro Football Hall of Fame member. When he took over the 49ers, they were without a doubt one of the worst teams in the NFL. In just three short seasons, he took them to a Super Bowl championship. In fact, during his time in SF, he won three Super Bowls and popularized a new type of offense—the West Coast offense.

I recently finished reading his book The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy on Leadership. Overall, I thought the book was okay—definitely worth a read but not a book I’ll re-read again down the line (full recap coming soon). However, two distinct points did stand out—how Walsh introduced a standard of performance and engineered a “team first” atmosphere.

Introducing a Standard of Performance

When Walsh took over the 49ers, they were joke of the NFL. They had a dismal record coming in and one of the lowest salaries in the league. Season ticket sales were down, and their home crowd was no where to be seen.

As the title The Score Takes Care of Itself would indicate, Walsh didn’t focus entirely on their plays or how they practiced. Instead, he transformed the organization from the ground up putting in place standards including some that might seem unrelated at first (shirts tucked in, arriving at practice on time, etc).

He focused on intense details and would hold players accountable. Receivers ran routes down to the inch. Lineman blocked this way not that way. Regardless of their current win/loss record, the San Francisco 49ers would embody Bill’s high Standard of Performance at all times.

I directed our focus less to the prize of victory than to the process of improving—obsessing, perhaps, about the quality of our execution and the content of our thinking; that is, our actions and attitude. I knew if we did that, winning would take care of itself, and when it didn’t I would seek ways to raise our Standard of Performance.

I found many parallels to leadership off the football field. In order for a team to be successful, they need to have a shared philosophy about how and why things should be done. They need to have answers to things like values, priorities, and non-negotiables. Speaking of philosophy, I thought Walsh’s definition was one of the best I’ve read:

A philosophy is the aggregate of your attitudes toward fundamental matters and is derived from a process of consciously thinking about critical issues and developing rational reasons for holding one particular belief or position rather than another.

So, how do you go about putting in a Standard of Performance on your team or organization? Bill detailed a six step process:

  1. Start with a comprehensive recognition of, reverance for, and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.
  2. Be clarion clear in communicating your expectation of high effort and execution of your Standard of Performance. Like water, many decent individuals will seak lower ground if left to their own inclinations.
  3. Let all know that you expect them to possess the highest level of expertise in their area of responsibility.
  4. Beyond standards and methodology, teach your beliefs, values, and philosophy.
  5. Teach “connection and extension.” An organization filled with individuals who are “independent contractors” unattached to one another is a team with little interior cohesion and strength.
  6. Make the expectations and metrics of competence that you demand in action and attitudes from personnel the new reality of your organization.

Engineering a “Team First” Atmosphere

The leader’s job is to facilitate a battlefield-like sense of camaraderie among his or her personnel, an environment for people to find a way to bond together, to care about one another and the work they do, to feel the connection and extension so necessary for great results.

loved how build described this role of a leader. He went on to describe how this applied to the 49ers specifically.

…were conscious about education players so they appreciated that when Jerry Rice caught a touchdown pass he was not solely responsible, but an extension of others—including those who blocked the pass rushers, receivers who meticulously coordinated their routes to draw defenders away from him, and the quarterback who risked being knocked unconscious attempting to throw the perfect pass…And this organizational perception that “success belongs to everyone” is taught by the leader.

Within any team, there will always be standout performers looking at pure metrics. Sales teams will always have a top woman or man. Support teams will always have a top support pro that answers the most tickets.

The best organizations succeed or fail as a team instead of a group of individual contributors. Creating that atmosphere is tough and something I talked about looking back on one year as a Team Lead. I think we’ve been successful thus far, but it takes continuous work to maintain this culture of “success belongs to everyone.”

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