Bill Walsh is a towering figure in the history of the NFL. His advanced leadership transformed the San Francisco 49ers from the worst franchise in sports to a legendary dynasty. In the process, he changed the way football is played. Prior to his death, Walsh granted a series of exclusive interviews to bestselling author Steve Jamison. These became his ultimate lecture on leadership.
All errors, omissions, and misrepresentations are mine.
The Standard of Performance
Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to your team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical. The exceptional assembly line comes first, before the quality car.
Direct your focus less to the prize of victory than to the process of improving — obsessing about the quality of your execution and the content of your thinking.
Establishing your Standard of Performance:
- Start with a comprehensive recognition of, reverence for, and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.
- Be clarion clear in communicating your expectation of high effort and execution of your Standard of Performance.
- Let all know that you expect them to possess the highest level of expertise in their area of responsibility.
- Beyond standards and methodology, teach your beliefs, values, and philosophy.
- Teach “connection and extension.”
- Make the expectations and metrics of competence that you demand in action and attitudes from personnel the new reality of your organization.
How to develop a culture of winning:
- Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.
- Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does.
- Be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing your own expertise.
- Be fair.
- Demonstrate character.
- Honor the direct connection between details and improvement, and relentlessly seek the latter.
- Show self-control, especially where it counts most: under pressure.
- Demonstrate and prize loyalty.
- Use positive language and have a positive attitude.
- Take pride in your effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort.
- Be willing to go the extra distance for the organization.
- Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation. Don’t get crazy with victory nor dysfunctional with loss.
- Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress). All the knowledge in the world means little if you can't communicate effectively.
- Seek poise in yourself and those you lead.
- Put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of your own.
- Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high.
- Make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.
The leader who will not be denied, who has expertise coupled with strength of will, is going to prevail. Some leaders are volatile, some voluble; some stoic, others exuberant; but all successful leaders know where they want to go, figure out a way they believe will get the organization there (after careful consideration of relevant available information), and then move forward with absolute determination.
Everybody’s got an opinion. Leaders are paid to make a decision. The difference between offering an opinion and making a decision is the difference between working for the leader and being the leader.
- A leader must never quit.
- A leader must know when to quit.
- Proving that you are right or proving that someone is wrong are bad reasons for persisting. Set aside your ego. Be more concerned with finding the right way than in having it your way.
- Good logic, sound principles, and strong belief are the purest and most productive reasons for pushing forward when things get rough.
When you make a mistake, admit it and fix it. Don’t let pride, stubbornness, or possible embarrassment about your bad decision prevent you from correcting what you have done. Fix it, or the little problem becomes a big one.
Twelve habits for being a better leader:
- Be yourself — the best version of yourself you can be. Your style will work for you when you stay within the framework of your own personality, take advantage of your strengths, and strive to overcome your weaknesses.
- Be committed to excellence. At all times, in all ways, your focus must be on doing things at the highest possible level.
- Be positive. Spend far more time teaching what to do than what not to do; far more time encouraging individuals than criticizing them; more time building up than tearing down. Maintain an affirmative, constructive, positive environment.
- Be prepared. Good luck is a product of good planning. “What happens when what’s supposed to happen doesn’t happen?” is the question that you must always be asking and solving.
- Be detail-oriented. High performance is achieved small step by small step through painstaking dedication to pertinent details. (But do not make the mistake of burying yourself alive in those details. Don't be immersed in the meaningless at the expense of the meaningful.)
- Be organized. You must think clearly with a disciplined mind, especially in regard to the most efficient and productive use of time and resources.
- Be accountable. Excuse making is contagious. Answerability starts with you.
- Be near-sighted and far-sighted. Keep everything in perspective while simultaneously concentrating fully on the task at hand. All efforts and plans should be considered not only in terms of short-run effect, but also in terms of how they impact the organization long term.
- Be fair. Ethically sound values engender respect from those you lead and give your team strength and resilience. Be clear in your own mind as to what you stand for, then stand up for it.
- Be firm. Do not budge one inch on your core values, standards, and principles.
- Be flexible. Be agile in adapting to changing circumstances. Consistency is crucial, but you must be quick to adjust to new challenges that defy the old solutions.
- Believe in yourself. To a large degree, a leader must “sell” himself to the team. This is impossible unless you exhibit self-confidence. Of course, belief derives from expertise.
You must know where you’re going and how you intend to get there, keeping in mind that it may be necessary to modify your tactics as circumstances dictate. You must be able to inspire and motivate through teaching people how to execute their jobs at the highest level. You must care about people and help those people care about one another and the team’s goals. And you must never second-guess yourself on decisions you make with integrity, intelligence, and a team-first attitude.
Ten ways to fail as a leader:
- Exhibit patience, paralyzing patience.
- Engage in delegating — massive delegating — or conversely, engage in too little delegating.
- Act in a tedious, overly cautious manner.
- Become best buddies with certain employees.
- Spend excessive amounts of time socializing with superiors or subordinates.
- Fail to continue hard-nosed performance evaluations of longtime — “tenured” — staff members, the ones most likely to go on cruise control or to relax.
- Fail to actively participate in efforts to appraise and acquire new hires.
- Trust others to carry out your fundamental duties.
- Find ways to get out from under the responsibilities of your position, to move accountability from yourself to others — the blame game.
- Promote an organizational environment that is comfortable and laid-back in the misbelief that the workplace should be fun, lighthearted, and free from appropriate levels of tension and urgency.
Leadership is expertise. It is not rhetoric or cheerleading speeches. People will follow a person who organizes and manages others, because he or she has credibility and expertise — a knowledge of the profession — and demonstrates an understanding of human nature.
Leadership requires poise under pressure. An organization that witnesses its leader at loose ends when troubles arise will look elsewhere for strength and direction.
A leader needs a very hard edge inside; it has to lurk in there somewhere and come out on occasion. You must be able to make and carry out harsh and, at times, ruthless decisions in a manner that is fast, firm, and fair.
The true inspiration, expertise, and ability to execute that employees take with them into their work is most often the result of their inner voice talking. For members of your team, you determine what their inner voice says. The leader, at least a good one, teaches the team how to talk to themselves:
- We can win if we work smart enough and hard enough.
- We can win if we put the good of the group ahead of our own personal interests.
- We can win if we improve. And there is always room for improvement.
- I know what is required for us to win. I will show you what it is.
Leadership, at its best, is teaching skills, attitudes, and goals to individuals who are part of your organization.
What it takes to teach:
- Passion is not just having a desire to do the job of teaching. Passion is a love for the act of teaching itself — believing in your heart that it is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
- Expertise is the inventory of knowledge and experience you possess, and the greater it is, the greater your potential to teach. Understand all aspects of your profession, not just one particular area. Actively seek the counsel of those you respect.
- Communication is the ability to organize and then successfully convey your informed thoughts.
- Persistence is essential because knowledge is rarely imparted on the first attempt.
Being a good teacher:
- Use straightforward language.
- Be concise.
- Account for a wide range of difference in knowledge, experience, and comprehension.
- Account for some members of the group being more receptive and ready to learn than others.
- Be observant during your comments. Know if you’re connecting.
- Strongly encourage note taking.
- Employ a somewhat unpredictable presentation style.
- Organize with logical, sequential building blocks in your communication.
- Encourage appropriate audience participation.
- Use visual aids.
- Remember Sun-tzu: “With more sophistication comes more control.”
People are the heart of your organization. The most important attribute of any organization is the way it treats its people; its commitment to the individuals on the team.
Emphasize not only the ability of a person to understand his own role and how it fits into the organization’s goal, but a knowledge or understanding of other people’s roles. Everybody is connected, each an extension of the others, each with ownership in the organization.
As a leader you must have the strength to let talented members of your organization know you believe in them — nurture their belief in themselves, teach them what they need to know, and then watch what happens.
Facilitate a battlefield-like sense of camaraderie among your 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. Ultimately, it’s the strongest bond of all, even stronger than money. We are united and fight as one; we win or lose as one.
Members of your team must truly believe that their first loyalty is to furthering the good of the group: “What is good for us is good for me.” But treat people right — a reputation for fair play can be a big part of a potential employee’s decision to join you or a current and valued employee’s desire to remain.
Do's and Don'ts:
- Set clear expectations. Employees can thrive in an environment where they know exactly what is expected of them — even when those expectations are very high.
- Don't play favorites. Those who aren't “buddies” inevitably begin to feel like second-class citizens, which usually leads to the creation of a second-class organization.
- Be supportive rather than negative. If you’re growing a garden, you need to pull out the weeds, but flowers will die if all you do is pick weeds. They need sunshine and water. People are the same. They need criticism, but they also require positive and substantive language and information and true support to really blossom.
- Extreme effort requires extreme prudence. The art of leadership requires knowing when it makes sense to take people over the top, to push them to their highest level of effort, and when to take your foot off the accelerator a little.
Few things offer greater return on less investment than praise — offering credit to someone in your organization who has stepped up and done the job. On the other hand, the cumulative effects of bullying people, creating an environment of ongoing fear, panic, and intimidation, are a situation where employees become increasingly tuned out and immune to all of your noise.
Managing people effectively:
- Treat people like people. Treat each member of your organization as a unique person.
- Seek positive relationships through encouragement, support, and critical evaluation. Maintain an uplifting atmosphere at work with your ongoing positive, enthusiastic, energizing behavior.
- Afford everyone equal dignity, respect, and treatment.
- Blend honesty and diplomacy.
- Allow for a wide range of moods, from serious to very relaxed, in the workplace depending on the circumstances. Develop the fine art of knowing when to crack the whip or crack a joke.
- Avoid pleading with players to “get going” or trying to relate to them by adopting their vernacular. Strong leaders don’t plead with individuals to perform.
- Make each person in your employ very aware that his or her well-being has a high priority with the organization and that the well-being of the organization must be his or her highest professional priority.
- Give no VIP treatment.
- Speak in positive terms about former members of your organization. Make it clear that respect and loyalty extend beyond an individual’s time on your payroll.
- Demonstrate interest in and support for the extended families of members of the organization.
- Communicate on a first-name basis without allowing relationships to become buddy-buddy.
- Don’t let differences or animosity linger.
Keeping people happy:
- Afford each person the same respect, support, and fair treatment you would expect if your roles were reversed.
- Leadership involves many people, each with their own need for role identity within the organization. Find what a person does best, utilize and emphasize it, and steer clear of his or her weaknesses.
- Demonstrate a pronounced commitment to employees by providing a work environment that enables them to achieve their maximum potential and productivity.
- Acknowledge the uniqueness of each employee and the need he or she has for a reasonable degree of job security and self-actualization.
- The most talented personnel often are very independent minded.
- While at times a divergence may exist between the good of the group and the good of the individual, in a best-case scenario the group’s and the individual’s “good” should be the same.
- People are most comfortable with how they are being treated when their duties are laid out in specific detail and their performance can be gauged by specific metrics.
- It is critical that employee expectation levels be reasonable, attainable, and high.
- Establish a protocol for how members of the organization interact with one another. their first priority is to do their job; their second priority is to facilitate others in doing their jobs.
Patton's dictates: praising rather than blaming; getting out and working amid your “troops”; precisely describing what you want done; taking pride in the profession; paying attention to details; creating habits that hold up under pressure; and removing nonessentials in the workload.
Communication isn't just being able to talk back and forth. It’s recognizing when to say it, how to say it, when to listen, whom you’re talking with, how they feel, what you’re trying to get down to, how important the circumstance is, what the necessity is timewise, and how rapidly the decision must be made.
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.
Learn to delegate. Trust in others whose talent you respected enough to hire them.
Personal qualities to look for in staff members:
- A fundamental knowledge of the area he or she has been hired to manage.
- A relatively high — but not manic — level of energy and enthusiasm and a personality that is upbeat, motivated, and animated.
- The ability to discern talent in potential employees.
- An ability to communicate in a relaxed yet authoritative — but not authoritarian — manner.
- Unconditional loyalty to both you and other staff members.
Keeping good staff members on the same page:
- You must establish clear parameters for your staff regarding the overall method by which you expect things to be done.
- Any philosophical differences that crop up must be identified and addressed by you in private meetings with the individual(s).
- You must recognize that staff members may work in different ways, using approaches that are at variance with yours. This is OK, as long as you and the staff member are philosophically compatible on the key issues. Insisting on a totalitarian, lockstep mentality removes creativity from within.
- To ensure unanimity throughout the staff, make unannounced visits to various department meetings.
- Don’t cede inordinate power or control to a staff member simply because you are relieved to have an experienced and proven performer come on board.
- Sometimes a staff member may intentionally teach a philosophy that is at odds with your code of conduct, in the belief that it conforms to your philosophy.
- Be alert for those staff members who seek to use their position to teach and express their personal beliefs.
- Personal contact is part of hands-on management.
Human nature is such that we are drawn to those with fortitude. 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.
- Success doesn’t care which road you take to get to its doorstep.
- Be bold. Remove fear of the unknown — that is, change — from your mind.
- Desperation should not drive innovation. What assets do we have that we're not taking advantage of?
- Be obsessive in looking for the upside in the downside.
Having a well-thought-out plan ready to go in advance of a change in the weather is the key to success. “What do you do if...?” Most leaders take this no deeper than the first level of inquiry. You must envision the future deeply and in detail — creatively — so that the unforeseeable becomes foreseeable. Then you write your script for the foreseeable.
Control what you can control:
- Flying by the seat of your pants precedes crashing by the seat of your pants.
- Planning for foul or fair weather improves the odds of making a safe landing and is a key to success. When you prepare for everything, you’re ready for anything.
- Create a crisis-management team that is smart enough to anticipate and plan for crises. Being decisive isn’t enough. A wrong call made in a decisive manner is still the wrong call.
- All personnel must recognize that your organization is adaptive and dynamic in facing unstable “weather.” It is a state of mind.
- In the face of massive and often conflicting pressures, an organization must be resolute in its vision of the future and the contingent plans to get where it wants to go.
- You bring on failure by reacting in an inappropriate manner to pressure or adversity. Your version of “scripting” helps ensure that you will offer the appropriate response in a professional manner, that you will act like a leader.
Continually and aggressively analyze not only your personnel but your organization’s vulnerabilities: What’s our blind side? What are the implications of the competition’s recent initiative? What’s our countermove to their move? Or is one even necessary?
When a threat occurs, the key is to quickly recognize the nature of the threat and then to creatively and expeditiously respond to it.
Dig deep. Don't lose track of hidden signs of progress or dysfunction, strength or weakness, because you are transfixed by the big prize. When you reach that goal, a common mistake is to assume things are fine. Conversely, when you fall short, the letdown may blind you from information indicating that success may be closer than you would imagine.
Pursuing your ambitions, especially those of any magnitude, can be grueling and hazardous, and produce agonizing failure along the way, but achieving those goals is among life’s most gratifying and thrilling experiences. The ability to survive and overcome the former to attain the latter is a fundamental difference between winners and losers.
The road to recovery and victory lies in having the strength to get up off the mat and start planning your next move. And when you stand and overcome a significant setback, you’ll find an increasing inner confidence and self-assurance that has been created by conquering defeat. You will create a personal belief that you can take on anything, survive and win.
Five Do's for getting back into the game:
- Do expect defeat. It’s a given when the stakes are high and the competition is working ferociously to beat you. If you’re surprised when it happens, you’re dreaming; dreamers don’t last long.
- Do force yourself to stop looking backward and dwelling on the professional “train wreck” you have just been in. It’s mental quicksand.
- Do allow yourself appropriate recovery (grieving) time. You’ve been knocked senseless; give yourself a little time to recuperate. A keyword here is “little.” Don’t let it drag on.
- Do tell yourself, “I am going to stand and fight again,” with the knowledge that often when things are at their worst you’re closer than you can imagine to success.
- Do begin planning for your next serious encounter. The smallest steps (plans) move you forward on the road to recovery. Focus on the fix.
- Don’t ask, “Why me?”
- Don’t expect sympathy.
- Don’t bellyache.
- Don’t keep accepting condolences.
- Don’t blame others.
It takes extraordinary fortitude to stay with it when times are bad. Just aspiring isn’t enough — you must also have the strength of commitment and sacrifice to adhere to those standards and ideals in both good times and bad.
Even in the worst circumstance, do not unravel mentally or emotionally; continue to fight and execute well, even if the cause appears to be lost; act like professionals. Your competitor must never look at you and conclude, “I not only beat you, I broke your spirit.”
Leading when losing:
- Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results; the process rather than the prize.
- Exhibit an inner toughness emanating from four of the most effective survival tools a leader can possess: expertise, composure, patience, and common sense.
- Maintain your level of professional ethics and all details of your own Standard of Performance.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Keep in mind that as troubles mount, your relationships with personnel become even more critical.
- Don’t let the magnitude of the challenge take you away from the incremental steps necessary to effect change. Continue to be detail-oriented.
- Exude an upbeat and determined attitude. Never, ever express doubt, but avoid an inappropriate sunny optimism in dark times.
- Hold meetings with staff educating them on what to expect; teach them that the immediate future may be a rough ride but that things will change under your leadership and with their support.
- Don’t label some concept or new plan the thing that will “get us back on track.” Keep in mind that simple remedies seldom solve a complex problem.
- Ensure that an appropriate level of courtesy and respect is extended to all members of the organization. When things are tough, civility is a great asset.
- Don’t plead with employees to “do better.”
- Avoid continual threatening or chastising.
- Deal with your immediate superior(s) on a one-to-one, ongoing basis. Expect betrayal if results are not immediate. (You extend the time before betrayal occurs by keeping your superiors in the loop.)
Criticism — both deserved and undeserved — is part of the territory when you’re the one calling the shots. Ignore the undeserved; learn from the deserved; lick your wounds and move on.
As with losing, there is fallout from success, and many of the symptoms are the same. The usual response — being knocked off balance emotionally and mentally — is one of the fundamental reasons it is so difficult to continue winning.
Derive satisfaction and gratification from winning without letting it define your self-worth, just as you cannot allow defeat to define you as a person.
How to continue winning after winning:
- Formally celebrate and observe the momentous achievement and make sure that everyone feels ownership in it.
- Allow pats on the back for a limited time. Then formally return to business as usual by letting everyone know the party is over. Make sure the power of your victory propels you forward in a controlled manner.
- Be apprehensive about applause.
- Develop a plan for your staff that gets them back into the mode of operation that produced success in the first place.
- Address specific situations that need shoring up; focus on the mistakes that were made and things that were not up to snuff in the success.
- Be demanding. Do not relax. Hold everyone to even higher expectations. Don’t relax your Standard of Performance.
- Don’t fall prey to overconfidence so that you feel you can or should make change for the sake of change.
- Use the time immediately following success as an opportunity to make hard decisions.
- Never fall prey to the belief that getting to the top makes everything easy.
- Recognize that mastery is a process, not a destination. Mastery requires endless remastery.
When things are going best is when you have the opportunity to be the strongest, most demanding, and most effective in your leadership. A strong wind is at your back, but it requires an understanding of the perils produced by victory to prevent that wind from blowing you over.
Conventional wisdom often produces conventional results. Trust your own judgment enough to be resourceful, innovative, and imaginative.
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. Your staff sees your devotion to work, their people see them, and on through the organization. Never ask anyone to do more than you are willing to do.
Enemies take up your time, energy, and attention — commodities too valuable to squander frivolously. One enemy can do more damage than the good of a hundred friends. By being sensitive to the inherent hazards of a hostile relationship, you can give yourself a chance to win the person over to having at least a neutral association with you.
There is no mystery to mastery. You never stop learning, perfecting, refining, molding your skills. You never stop depending on the fundamentals — sustaining, maintaining, and improving.
Superb, reliable results take time. The little improvements that lead to impressive achievements come not from a week’s work or a month’s practice. Your effort in the beginning is part of a continuum of effort; your Standard of Performance is part of a continuum of standards. Today’s effort becomes tomorrow’s result.
At the end, talent, functional intelligence, experience, maturity, effort, dedication, and practice may not be perfect, but they will get you so close to perfection that most people will think you achieved it. And the results will show it.
Your ultimate assignment as a leader is getting those on your team totally ready for the battle. After that, you have to let winning take care of itself.