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10 Leadership Lessons from the Legendary Bill Walsh - Part 1

Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center
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Like to know the secrets of transforming a 2-14 team into a three-time Super Bowl winning Dynasty?


Former San Francisco 49ers football coach Bill Walsh was a true genius when it came to building and sustaining a championship program. During his remarkable coaching career, Coach Walsh led the 49ers to three Super Bowl Championships, transformed the game with his famous West Coast Offense, and spawned an impressive coaching tree of over two dozen successful coaches including Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Holmgren, Mike McCarthy, Mike Shanahan, Mike Tomlin, and Jon Gruden.

Having had the awesome privilege of learning first-hand from Coach Walsh during my time with the Stanford Leadership Academy as well as studying his books, The Score Takes Care of Itself and Building a Champion, here are 10 Leadership Lessons from the legendary and late Bill Walsh.


1. Developing a Successful Team Starts with Developing a Successful Culture

In taking over a team with a 2-14 record the previous season, Coach Walsh knew the key to transforming the losing mentality of the 49ers was to implement a totally different culture; one that was top-notch instead of toxic. Walsh called the new winning culture his Standard of Performance. It was a totally different way of thinking and acting that was based on high standards, hard work, and a commitment to being first-class in everything they did.

Walsh wrote in The Score Takes Care of Itself, "I came to the San Francisco 49ers with a specific goal - to implement what I call the Standard of Performance. It was a way of doing things, a leadership philosophy, that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing; more to do with the mental than with the physical."

Your first job as a new coach should be to create a culture of success. You must model, communicate, teach, reward, and enforce the expectations and standards for how your program will operate - including how your athletes will train, practice, compete, win, lose, lead, and conduct themselves on and off the playing field.

Creating, communicating, implementing, and sustaining the right team culture is the key catalyst to lasting success. Walsh said, "The culture precedes positive results. It doesn't get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they're champions: they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners."

Instilling the right culture almost always takes time. And inevitably there will be some who balk against your standards. But, you must have the courage to confront and even remove the dissenters from your program, even though they might be highly talented. Ultimately, you must believe that your successful culture will attract, support, and retain the right talent and people, which will help you prevail and succeed in the long run.

"For me, the road had been rocky at times, triumphant too, but along the way I had never wavered in my dedication to installing - teaching - those actions and attitudes I believed would create a great team, a superior organization. I knew that if I achieved that, the score would take care of itself," said Walsh.

Questions for You to Consider:

What kind of culture or Standard of Performance have you instilled in your program?

How well do your people embrace it?

Are you willing to confront and potentially remove those who do not embrace your standards?

To learn more about creating a Championship Culture in your program, check out our new book How to Build and Sustain a Championship Culture.




2. The Leader Sets the Tone

We all have heard the saying, "It all starts at the top." Bill Walsh lived it every day. If you want your athletes to model the kind of passion, commitment, and work ethic necessary to be successful, you must demonstrate it yourself in everything you do. You are the tone setter for your athletes, coaching staff, support staff, etc. They will take all their cues from you.

Walsh writes, "For me the starting point for everything - before strategy, tactics, theories, managing, organizing, philosophy, methodology, talent, or experience - is work ethic. Without one of significant magnitude you're dead in the water, finished. I knew the example I set as head coach would be what others in the organization would recognize as the standard they needed to match (at least, most of them would recognize it). If there is such a thing as a trickle-down effect, that's it. Your staff sees your devotion to work, their people see them, and on through the organization."

In our Leadership Academies, we call it being "COMPELLED" on our Commitment Continuum. You must have an indomitable passion that drives your program and becomes contagious with all who are involved with it.

Questions for You to Consider:

What kind of tone are you setting for your program?

Are you the hardest worker on your team?

Where would your athletes rate you on the Commitment Continuum?


3. Develop and Empower Effective Locker Room Leaders

Coach Walsh realized that it wasn't just his work ethic and leadership that would transform the team - he also needed leaders in the locker room and on the playing field. He needed a group of respected team leaders who would help him create, reinforce, and enforce the culture of the team.

San Francisco assistant coach Mike White said, "He knew that organizations have leaders within, not just one leader, the CEO or head coach, but interior leaders who make possible or prevent what the guy in charge is trying to accomplish. In football they're called locker-room leaders, and ultimately they play a major role in creating the culture of the team - instilling either a positive or negative mindset. Every organization has them, influential people who've got your back - or are putting a knife in it."

You must invest the time to develop and empower leaders on your team who have your back. They will help you develop a positive culture throughout the rest of the team. And you must be willing to identify, confront, and remove those negative leaders who are trying to put a knife in it.

Walsh wrote, "In building and maintaining your organization, place a premium on those who exhibit great desire to keep pushing themselves to higher and higher performance and production levels, who seek to go beyond the highest standards that you, the leader, set. The employee who gets to work early, stays late, fights through illness and personal problems is the one to keep your eye on for greater responsibilities."

Questions for You to Consider:

Who are your team's locker room leaders?

Which of your athletes and staff have your back?

How will you empower them?

Does anyone in your program seem to be sabotaging your culture?

How will you put a stop to it?




4. Competitors Find a Way to Win

Bill Walsh was fierce competitor. His competitiveness is primarily what drove him and his team to prove people wrong after starting 2-14. Two short seasons later, the 49ers shocked the world and won their first Super Bowl championship.

In fact, Walsh's competitiveness was the catalyst in creating his famous West Coast offense. As the Offensive Coordinator for the struggling Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh had to somehow find a way to compete with a quarterback named Virgil Carter who had a weak but accurate arm. Instead of throwing the ball down the field like every other team at the time, Walsh designed an intricate and highly innovative offense that made use of short, precise passes. Despite having what many would think an insurmountable weakness, Walsh and his team found a way to win despite the challenges, the hallmark of true competitors.

Walsh wrote, "All successful leaders know where we want to go, figure out a way we believe will get the organization there, and then move forward with absolute determination. We may falter from time to time, but ultimately we are unswerving in moving toward our goal; we will not quit. There is an inner compulsion - obsession - to get it done the way you want it done."

As a head coach and general manager, Walsh made a point of looking for competitors when he built his team. He said, "Strength of will - is essential to your survival and success. The competitor who won't go away, who won't stay down, has one of the most formidable competitive advantages of all. In evaluating people, I prize ego. It often translates into a fierce desire to do their best and an inner confidence that stands them in good stead when things really get rough. Psychologists suggest that there is a strong link between ego and competitiveness. All the great performers I've ever coached had ego to spare."

Look for competitors when putting together your team - and look to enhance that fierce desire in your athletes to give you a formidable competitive advantage.

Questions for You to Consider:

Are you factoring in competitiveness when putting together your team?

How are you developing the competitive fire in your athletes?


5. Everyone is Accountable for Both Victory and Defeat

Unlike many of today's professional sports teams where the focus is almost solely on a limited number of prima donna individuals, Walsh continually emphasized the team approach. He wanted everyone in the 49er organization, from star quarterback Joe Montana to the office secretaries, to feel that they were responsible and accountable for the team's success.

Walsh wrote, "Victory is produced by and belongs to all. Winning a Super Bowl results from you whole team not only doing their individual jobs but perceiving that those jobs contributed to overall success. The trophy doesn't belong just to a superstar quarterback or CEO, head coach or top salesperson. This is an essential lesson I taught the San Francisco organization: The offensive team is not a country unto itself, nor is the defensive team or the special teams, staff, coaches, or anyone in the organization separate from the fate of the organization. WE are united and fight as one; we win or lose as one."

Additionally, it's very easy for certain segments of your team to blame others. For example, when things go wrong on many teams you will see the offense blame the defense, the seniors blame the freshmen, the parents blame the coaches, the coaches blame the athletic directors for the inadequate budget, etc. Everyone tries to point the finger at someone else rather than take full responsibility to improve their part. Walsh would have none of it in his organization.

Don't allow people on your team to blame a certain individual or segment of your program and make them the scapegoat for your problems - it will divide and destroy your team. No matter what their role, encourage everyone to do their job and provide unwavering support for every segment of the team.

Questions for You to Consider:

How do you emphasize team in your organization?

Do you acknowledge everyone in your program, reserves, assistant coaches, athletic trainers, etc. when you are successful?

Which segments of your team might be blaming another segment?


To learn more ideas from Coach Walsh on how to build confidence, effectively enforce your team's standards, and advance in the coaching profession, our Championship Coaches Network members can click on Part 2 of the article below.


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·  10 Leadership Lessons from the Legendary Bill Walsh - Part 2