Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • He did not view the organization and the individuals within it as two separate entities, but as one and the same: “People are the heart of your organization,” he instructed me. This perspective affected his leadership profoundly. Bill Walsh loved lists, viewed them as a road map to results. That may sound simplistic, but I believe it was an important part of his astounding deductive-reasoning ability. When confronted with a “problem”—for example, how do we score touchdowns without a good running game or a strong passer? what is our communication process on the sidelines during a game when crowd noise becomes overwhelming? what are the specific duties of my executive vice president for football operations? and hundreds and hundreds more—Bill Walsh dissected the issue into its relevant parts, found a solution, and then taught the solution to the appropriate individuals. His creative and common sense brilliance as a problem solver was unsurpassed and a major component in the installation of what he called the Standard of Performance.

  • Your philosophy is the single most important navigational point on your leadership compass. My Standard of Performance—the values and beliefs within it—guided everything I did in my work at San Francisco and are defined as follows: 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 my 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 my 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); seek poise in myself and those I lead; put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own; maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; and make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.

  • From the start, my prime directive, the fundamental goal, was the full and total implementation throughout the organization of the actions and attitudes of the Standard of Performance.  
  • I insisted that all employees not only raise their level of “play” but dramatically lift the level of their thinking—how they perceived their relationship to the team and its members; how they approached the vagaries of competition; and how willing they were to sacrifice for the goals I identified. Much of this relates to the respect and sensitivity we accorded one another and to an appreciation of the roles each member of our organization fulfilled. Each player had a connection to and was an extension of his teammates.  
  • This concept applied beyond the team itself. Players had a connection to—and were an extension of— the coaching staff, trainers, team doctor, nutritionists, maintenance crew, and, yes, the people who answered the phones. Everybody was connected, each of us an extension of the others, each of us with ownership in our organization. I taught this just as you should teach it in your own organization.

  • I nurtured a variation of that extreme attitude in our entire organization, most especially the players: “You can’t let your buddies down. Demand and expect sacrifice from yourself, and they’ll do the same for you.” That is the measure, in my opinion, of any great organization, including a team of football players—that willingness to sacrifice for the team, to go the extra mile, the extra five or fifty miles. And it starts with the leader and your leadership staff.

  • Bonding within the organization takes place as one individual and then another steps up and raises his or her level of commitment, sacrifice, and performance. They demand and expect a lot of one another. That’s extremely important because when you know that your peers—the others in the organization—demand and expect a lot out of you and you, in turn, out of them, that’s when the sky’s the limit.

  • 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. Ultimately, it’s the strongest bond of all, even stronger than money.

  • People want to believe they’re part of something special, an organization that’s exceptional.

  • In many ways, it comes down to details. The intense focus on those pertinent details cements the foundation that establishes excellence in performance. The simplest correct execution of procedures represents the commitment of players and staff to the organization and the organization to them. Specifics such as “shirttails in,” understanding and respecting the jobs of others in the organization, running exactly ten yards and not ten yards fifteen inches, exhibiting a positive attitude, answering the phones professionally, seeing the team as an extension of yourself—all contribute in varying degrees to a devotion to high standards visible to everyone. The self-image of the 49ers as a first-class professional outfit was nurtured and carefully developed in these incremental ways. That’s what I focused on, knowing that if I did so, winning would take care of itself.   
  • In quantifying and implementing your own version of the Standard of Performance, the following guidelines are a good reference point:
    1. Start with a comprehensive recognition of, reverence for, and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.
    2. Be clear in communicating your expectation of high effort and execution of your Standard of Performance.Like water, many decent individuals will seek lower ground if left to their own inclinations. In most cases you are the one who inspires and demands they go upward rather than settle for the comfort of doing what comes easily. Push them beyond their comfort zone; expect them to give extra effort.
    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. An organization is not an inanimate object. It is a living organism that you must nurture, guide, and strengthen.
    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. You must provide the model for that new standard in your own actions and attitude.   
  • My new short precision pass-oriented offense was ostensibly created out of nothing. In fact, it was created out of existing assets that only needed to be “seen” and then capitalized on in new ways. There are several elements in its evolution that are worth evaluating as they pertain to your own leadership.
    1. Success doesn’t care which road you take to get to its doorstep.The traditionalists— rigid and resistant in their thinking—who sneered at the new passing system I was creating were soon trying to figure out why it was beating them and how to copy it.
    2. Be bold. Remove fear of the unknown—that is, change—from your mind.Respect the past without clinging to it: “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the mantra of a team setting itself up to lose to an organization that’s not doing it that way anymore. Paul Brown didn’t flinch when I came to him with my revolutionary ideas—a completely new system of playing offensive football. By nature he was an innovator who wasn’t afraid of change.
    3. Desperation should not drive innovation.Here’s a good question to write on a Post-it Note and put on your desk: “What assets do we have right now that we’re not taking advantage of?” Virgil Carter’s “limited” skills, the 53.5 yards of width, and the availability of five potential receivers were all available assets even before desperation drove me to utilize them creatively. While waiting to get what you want—a “quarterback with a strong arm”—make the most of what you’ve got.
    4. Be obsessive in looking for the upside in the downside.My evaluation of Virgil Carter’s “weak” résumé, his so-called limited assets, led directly to utilizing them productively. Why? Instead of looking for reasons we couldn’t make it work, I sought solutions that would make it succeed.
  • There are many aspects of professional football that directly correspond to the subject of leadership in business. I believe scripting, adapted to your own environment in your own way, can have the same tremendous benefit for you that it did for me, and I offer this summary as a good point of reference:
    1. Flying by the seat of your pants precedes crashing by the seat of your pants.
    2. Planning for foul or fair weather, “scripting” as it applies to your organization, improves the odds of making a safe landing and is a key to success. When you prepare for everything, you’re ready for anything.
    3. 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. I hadn’t planned for the “crisis” up in the booth against the Oakland Raiders, and we lost; I had planned for the “crisis” against Cincinnati when we got the ball with two seconds left on the clock and won. The former desperate situation was, indeed, desperate; the latter was not, because we were ready for it.
    4. All personnel must recognize that your organization is adaptive and dynamic in facing unstable “weather.” It is a state of mind. Situations and circumstances change so quickly in football or business that no one can afford to get locked into one way of doing things. You must take steps to prepare employees to be flexible when the situation and circumstances warrant it. 5. 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.
    5. 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.  
  • He brought in very good coaches and taught us how to be great coaches. Maybe that explains why so many of his assistants eventually became head coaches in their own right. In the history of coaching, nobody’s had more of his assistant coaches—first- and second-generation—go on to head coaching positions.   
  • Bill forced us to think at a higher level, which was the starting point for getting players to play at a higher level and the organization to operate at a higher level. That was his total focus, like an obsession. All he talked about was improvement. And he knew how to teach improvement.

  • I would tell you this: Bill’s gift for teaching created belief in him, conviction in us. Bill Walsh was the consummate teacher. With the naysayers gone, he had a team of talented people who were ready and willing to be led to the promised land.  
  • What they share beyond expertise and great success, however, was their indomitable will. They simply would not quit in their effort to install their own system, to push forward with their plan, not someone else’s or a committee’s. Keep in mind that all three of them were handed tough jobs, teams in trouble (e.g., Dallas was an expansion franchise and went 0-11-1 in their first season under Landry). Some leaders are volatile, some voluble; some stoic, others exuberant; but all successful leaders know where we want to go, figure out a way we believe will get the organization there (after careful consideration of relevant available information), 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 even if the personal cost is high. It is good to remind yourself that this quality—strength of will—is essential to your survival and success. Often you are urged to “go along to get along,” solemnly advised that “your plan should’ve worked by now,” or told other variations that amount to backing away from a course you believe in your heart and know in your head is correct. You look around the room and find yourself with only a few supporters. Or perhaps not even a few. Heads are bowed, everybody’s eyes are lowered, looking down at their hands, embarrassed to look at you. You may be standing alone. This is when you find out if you’re a leader. In my years as a head coach, I wanted a democratic-style organization with input and communication and freedom of expression, even opinions that were at great variance with my ideas. But only up to a point. When it was time for a decision, that decision would be made by me according to dictates having to do with one thing only, namely, making the team better. And once the decision was made, the discussion was over. My ultimate job, and yours, is not to give an opinion. 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 be keen and alert to what drives a decision, a plan of action. If it was based on good logic, sound principles, and strong belief, I felt comfortable in being unswerving in moving toward my goal. Any other reason (or reasons) for persisting were examined carefully. Among the most common faulty reasons are  (1) trying to prove you are right and (2) trying to prove someone else is wrong. Of course, they amount to about the same thing and often lead to the same place: defeat. Losing—failure—is part of the package for a leader in a competitive career. I was always reluctant to change a course of action that I had committed to in pursuit of a goal, but after my pigheaded persistence against Tulane University, I became scrupulous in analyzing when a change of course was appropriate, when “my way” was the wrong way. A leader must have a vision, which is simply an elevated word for “goal.” Significant time and resources will be applied to achieving that goal. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that you proceed and persist for the correct reasons; your tactics must be sound and based on logic seasoned with instinct. If I led our team down the road to failure, I wanted to make sure the quality of my reasoning was very solid. If we went down, I wanted to go down for the right reasons. That’s tough enough to take, but what is toughest of all— what is inexcusable—is to fail because you are unwilling to admit that your way was the wrong way and that a change of course is your only path to victory.  
  • Few things are more painful for a leader than losing because your reasoning is faulty, your conclusions flawed, your logic skewed by emotions, pride, or arrogance. One of the great leadership challenges is to recognize when hubris has you in its grip before it is too late to change. Here’s a short checklist worth keeping in mind when it comes to persevering, to doing it “your way” at all costs:
    1. A leader must never quit.
    2. A leader must know when to quit.
    3. Proving that you are right or proving that someone is wrong are bad reasons for persisting.
    4. Good logic, sound principles, and strong belief are the purest and most productive reasons for pushing forward when things get rough.
  • The head of the 49er scouts, Howard White, was incensed when I was named general manager; he wanted the job and felt he deserved it. During a tense meeting in which I told him he wasn’t going to be general manager, White announced that not only was he resigning but all of our scouts were quitting out of loyalty to him. His threat carried tremendous weight, since the scouts happened to be in town for a pre draft conference, a series of meetings that would chart our future talent acquisitions and, in effect, my future. My authority—my leadership—was being challenged at a critical moment. Howard knew it and was more than pleased to put a gun to my head. I felt, however, that I had no option but to call Howard out and call him on his threat. I knew more about judging talent for my system than anyone, including Howard. I therefore accepted his “resignation” and then asked John Ralston, a member of our staff, to immediately inform all of the other scouts that we accepted their resignations as tendered by their boss. That was a bombshell. The scouts’ response was swift and unequivocal: “We want to stay; we’re not unhappy that Howard White is leaving; we didn’t offer to follow him out the door,” or words to that effect. My problem was over, but only because I had stood my ground and protected my turf when my position and authority were challenged. Leaders who don’t understand what their territory is and how to protect it will soon find themselves with no turf to protect.

  • Here are twelve habits I have identified over the years that will make you be a better leader:
    1. Be yourself.I am not Vince Lombardi; Vince Lombardi was not Bill Walsh. My style was my style, and it worked for me. Your style will work for you when you take advantage of your strengths and strive to overcome your weaknesses. You must be the best version of yourself that you can be; stay within the framework of your own personality and be authentic. If you’re faking it, you’ll be found out.
    2. Be committed to excellence.I developed my Standard of Performance over three decades in the business of football. It could just as accurately (although more awkwardly) been called “Bill’s Prerequisites for Doing Your Job at the Highest Level of Excellence Vis-à-Vis Your Actions and Attitude on Our Team.” My commitment to this “product”—excellence—preceded my commitment to winning football games. At all times, in all ways, your focus must be on doing things at the highest possible level.
    3. Be positive.I spent far more time teaching what to do than what not to do; far more time teaching and encouraging individuals than criticizing them; more time building up than tearing down. There is a constructive place for censure and highlighting negative aspects of a situation, but too often it is done simply to vent and creates a barrier between you and others. Maintain an affirmative, constructive, positive environment.
    4. Be prepared. (Good luck is a product of good planning.)Work hard to get ready for expected situations—events you know will happen. Equally important, plan and prepare for the unexpected. “What happens when what’s supposed to happen doesn’t happen?” is the question that you must always be asking and solving. No leader can control the outcome of the contest or competition, but you can control how you prepare for it.
    5. Be detail-oriented. Organizational excellence evolves from the perfection of details relevant to performance and production. What are they for you? High performance is achieved small step by small step through painstaking dedication to pertinent details. (Caution: Do not make the mistake of burying yourself alive in those details.) Address all aspects of your team’s efforts to prepare mentally, physically, fundamentally, and strategically in as thorough a manner as is humanly possible.
    6. Be organized. A symphony will sound like a mess without a musical score that organizes each and every note so that the musicians know precisely what to play and when to play it. Great organization is the trademark of a great organization. You must think clearly with a disciplined mind, especially in regard to the most efficient and productive use of time and resources.
    7. Be accountable.Excuse making is contagious. Answerability starts with you. If you make excuses—which is first cousin to “alibiing”—so will those around you. Your organization will soon be filled with finger-pointing individuals whose battle cry is, “It’s his fault, not mine!”
    8. Be near-sighted and far-sighted. Keep everything in perspective while simultaneously concentrating fully on the task at hand. All decisions should be made with an eye toward how they affect the organization’s performance—not how they affect you or your feelings. 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. This is very difficult.
    9. Be fair.The 49ers treated people right. I believe your value system is as important to success as your expertise. 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. And then stand up for it.
    10. Be firm.I would not budge one inch on my core values, standards, and principles.
    11. Be flexible.I was agile in adapting to changing circumstances. Consistency is crucial, but you must be quick to adjust to new challenges that defy the old solutions.
    12. Believe in yourself.To a large degree, a leader must “sell” himself to the team. This is impossible unless you exhibit self-confidence. While I was rarely accused of cockiness, it was apparent to most observers that I had significant belief—self-confidence—in what I was doing. Of course, belief derives from expertise.
    13. Be a leader.Whether you are a head coach, CEO, or sales manager, 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.
  • Coach George Allen was a demon on details. As head coach of the Washington Redskins, he was preparing to face the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. A few days before the game, he sent a staff member out to the Coliseum for an entire afternoon to chart the movement of the sun during the hours when the game would be played. George wanted to know exactly where it would be so he could calculate the “sun advantage” if the Redskins won the coin toss. This is an example of sweating the right small stuff. Later, in a turbulent and brief tenure as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, George supposedly took time off from his coaching responsibilities to design a more efficient system of serving food, a way of reducing the amount of time players spent in the lunch line. He took time out of his jam-packed schedule to personally draw up a schematic for those players wanting soup with their meals: One line was designated for those wanting crackers with their soup; the other for those who didn’t want any crackers. This is an example of sweating the wrong small stuff. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired him before the regular season even began. (I should note that while George wasn’t fired for designing a “crackerless” line, it may have been symptomatic of what he was doing—sweating the wrong details.)

  • While it is critically important to concentrate on the smallest relevant aspects of your job without losing sight of the big picture, it is easy to become so completely overwhelmed by ongoing setbacks that you start focusing on issues completely extraneous to improvement in an attempt to keep from having to look at intractable problems.

  • Seeing it in others, I watched for it in my own behavior— as you should in yours—knowing that it would significantly reduce my ability to be effective, that it was dodge, a way of diverting my attention. A coach who becomes afflicted with the malady of “trivialities” might suddenly and compulsively worry about whether all of the practice uniforms have been laundered correctly (“Can’t you get all of those grass stains out?”); obsess over luncheons with local fan clubs; and take inordinate pride in various award ceremonies or alumni gatherings. All of this is an escape mechanism—a method of distracting yourself from the tough work ahead. George Allen isn’t the only NFL coach who became immersed in the meaningless at the expense of the meaningful. A Seattle head coach once diverted himself from the hardships of fixing a dismal team and organization by focusing more on how the Seahawks performed during the national anthem than on how they performed during a game. Valuable practice time was actually spent rehearsing the national anthem “formation”— lining players up by height and number in a perfectly straight row, feet together, helmets held in the left hand by the face guard, no gum chewing, no movement, shirttails tucked in, and actually singing the words. This was going on at a time when the team was in the tank.

  • Sharpening pencils in lieu of sharpening your organization’s performance is one way to lose your job. Here are ten additional nails you can pound into your professional coffin:
    1. Exhibit patience, paralyzing patience.
    2. Engage in delegating—massive delegating—or conversely, engage in too little delegating.
    3. Act in a tedious, overly cautious manner.
    4. Become best buddies with certain employees.
    5. Spend excessive amounts of time socializing with superiors or subordinates.
    6. Fail to continue hard-nosed performance evaluations of longtime—“tenured”—staff members, the ones most likely to go on cruise control, to relax.
    7. Fail to actively participate in efforts to appraise and acquire new hires.
    8. Trust others to carry out your fundamental duties.
    9. Find ways to get out from under the responsibilities of your position, to move accountability from yourself to others—the blame game.
    10. 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.  
  • The trademark of a well-led organization in sports or business is that it’s virtually self-sustaining and self directed—almost autonomous. To put it in a more personal way, if your staff doesn’t seem fully mobilized and energized until you enter the room, if they require your presence to carry on at the level of effort and excellence you have tried to install, your leadership has not percolated down.

  • Ideally, you want your Standard of Performance, your philosophy and methodology, to be so strong and solidly ingrained that in your absence the team performs as if you were present, on site. They’ve become so proficient, highly mobilized, and well prepared that in a sense you’re extraneous; everything you’ve preached and personified has been integrated and absorbed; roles have been established and people are able to function at a high level because they understand and believe in what you’ve taught them, that is, the most effective and productive way of doing things accompanied by the most productive attitude while doing them. Fundamentally sound actions and attitudes are the keys.

  • Consequently, I was very pleased when I began overhearing 49er coaches repeating my ideas to one another and subsequently to our players. Later, when I heard the players using my terms or phrases—my personal dialogue or choice of words that represented concepts and ideas—I knew that I’d made a connection, that my leadership had percolated down. (Of course, seeing it produce an improving won-lost record was better evidence.) This is extremely important because an organization is crippled if it needs to ask the leader what to do every time a question arises. I didn’t want an organizational psyche of leadership dependency, of being semi-dysfunctional without me around making every decision. Here are specific examples in which my leadership philosophy percolated down. My battle cry was “Beat ’em to the punch!” which I repeated over and over to coaches and players through the years. It meant, “Hurt your opponents before they hurt you. Strike first.” It was like a mantra of competition for me. Soon I was hearing it repeated by others. I saw it on the field as the 49ers became known for establishing an early lead, which, of course, changed the dynamics of a game in our favor. Another was “Commit, explode, recover (if you’re wrong)!” which was shorthand for having a plan of attack, executing it suddenly and powerfully, and then reacting quickly and intelligently to the results of what you’ve done. It was a way of thinking and performing, a philosophy—my philosophy, my approach to competing. It, too, was soon part of our organization’s vernacular and attitude. “Four-minute offense” meant we were ahead late in the game and wanted to take time off the clock, avoid penalties, not go out of bounds, control the ball, and more. When that situation arose, I didn’t have to say anything. Players would be shouting it to each other: “Four-minute offense! Four-minute offense!” It was satisfying to hear because it meant they had come to understand and embrace what I was teaching. I instructed our maintenance crew to put up a white five-foot-square grease board with “I WILL NOT BE OUTHIT ANY TIME THIS SEASON!” printed in bold letters across the top. I got out my Magic Marker and signed it—“Bill Walsh.” Then everybody on the team signed it. It was a frame of mind, an attitude that I sought to instill. “I will not be outhit any time this season!” was about the physical aspect of the profession, but also about the mental and emotional—a state of mind. And everybody on the team literally signed up for it—a contract. This, too, was soon in the air, repeated, absorbed, part of our DNA. My leadership had percolated down and had begun taking on a life of its own. It went beyond my phrases, of course, and included everything from offensive and defensive schemes to the precision and professionalism applied to all matters in training camp and the regular season. And much more. Ultimately, you hope your ideas and way of doing things become so strongly entrenched that the organization performs as effectively without you as with you. That’s the goal and, in fact, it happened to me.  
  • The responsible leader of any company or corporation aggressively seeks to ensure its continued prosperity. It’s the mark of a forward-thinking leadership. A strong company that goes south after the CEO retires is a company whose recently departed CEO didn’t finish the job. If everything goes great when you’re around but slows or stops in its tracks when you’re not there, you are not fulfilling your responsibilities. Your leadership has not percolated down.

  • I generally preferred the opposite approach in characterizing the other team and its players. To me they were objects that were both faceless and nameless: Nameless, Faceless Objects. My logic was that I wanted our focus directed at one thing only: going about our business in an intensely efficient and professional manner—first on the practice field, later on the playing field. I felt that moving attention away from that goal to create artificial and manufactured “demons” was artificial and usually nonproductive, especially when done repeatedly (as is usually the case with those who like the technique).  
  • Whether it’s sports, sales, management, or almost any other competitive context, consistent motivation usually comes from a consuming desire to be able to perform at your best under pressure, namely, the pressure produced by tough competition. If a player needed me to light a fire under him by turning the other team into a demon, he was lacking something I couldn’t give him.   
  • The lesson I had learned in fumbling through the earlier strike was useful this time around; namely, don’t assume because of odd circumstances that everything will somehow sort itself out. Rather, play for keeps all the time. The clock never stops running; there is never a “time-out” when what you do is somehow less meaningful.

  • I also recognized that 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. Applied correctly, this hard edge will not only solve the immediate difficulty, but also prevent future problems by sending out this important message: Cross my line and you can expect severe consequences. This will have ongoing benefits for your organization.

  • Word of my decision circulated fast. Everybody knew what had happened and why. It sent out a vitally important message: There are consequences—at times harsh consequences—for ignoring the spoken and unspoken code of conduct that was part of the standards I had established. Ron Singleton was not exempt from my code of behavior just because he was an important component of our future. People got the message: If a top player such as Ron Singleton could be fired for breaking some fundamentally important element of my Standard of Performance, so could anyone. The “cardboard box” incident became a focal point, a reminder throughout the 49er organization of the hard edge, the severe action I was willing to take if circumstances dictated, if I was pushed too far. It served me well over the years. From time to time, leaders must show this hard edge. They must make those around them somewhat uneasy, even ill at ease, in not knowing what to expect from you, the leader. The knowledge that there is this hardness inside you can have a very sobering effect on those who might otherwise be sloppy—those who occasionally need to be reminded of your policies and practices. Members of your organization should be empowered by the expertise and motivation you offer—the Standard of Performance you have defined—but also by their very clear understanding of the consequences of taking you too far. There’s a positive aesthetic to my persona; it’s an image that can be misleading because it suggests a professorial—soft—attitude; a reluctance to bring down the hammer. But inside I have a hard edge, a willingness to mete out punishment and take action that may hurt individuals. It doesn’t reveal itself often, but it’s there. And those within our organization learned to respect it. You will benefit if that same understanding exists within your team.  
  • 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.

  • On the field, the 49ers depended totally on the regimen and skills they had learned. My teaching and the great teaching of the 49er assistant coaches was the decisive factor in competition, not halftime speeches or homilies delivered standing on a chair in the locker room. Furthermore, once the game started, the players responded to me not on the basis of my sideline shouting (seldom done), but because I could function under stress. I was clear headed and made sound decisions. They saw it and knew it and responded like professionals. The same is true elsewhere. Whatever great excitement you may stir up in your employees with a rousing speech about a big quarter or blowing away a sales quota starts to evaporate the minute they exit the conference room. 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, not some outer voice shouting, and not some leader giving a pep talk. 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. An effective leader has a profound influence on what that inner voice will say. The great leaders in sports, business, and life always have the most powerful and positive inner voice talking to them, which they, in turn, share with and teach to their organization. The specifics of that inner voice varies from leader to leader, but I believe all have these four messages in common:
    1. We can win if we work smart enough and hard enough.
    2. We can win if we put the good of the group ahead of our own personal interests.
    3. We can win if we improve. And there is always room for improvement.
    4. I know what is required for us to win. I will show you what it is.
  • Joe Montana’s leadership was grounded in this key characteristic: Despite the fact that he was the starting quarterback, with all of the trappings that come with that position, he never played favorites or believed that a person’s reputation, status, or credentials entitled him to special treatment. When you worked with Joe, you were treated as an equal. There were no stars in the Montana system, including Joe Montana. That corny old cliché, “One for all and all for one,” could have been written with him in mind.

  • His leadership skills were demonstrated more by behavior on the field or in the locker room than by what he might say just before or during the game. Joe’s interaction with other players and coaches was democratic, sincere, and understated. He led with his own talent, quiet confidence, and unassuming demeanor. Joe never stood up and gave a rah-rah speech to our team at halftime, but as the gravity of a situation increased, so did his own intensity. He could become almost trancelike at times of heightened pressure. This accounted for the amazing thirty-one fourth-quarter comebacks he engineered during his NFL career. Equally impressive—perhaps more so—is the fact that in four Super Bowl games he never threw a single interception. Joe didn’t have to talk the talk because he walked the walk. And without really working at it, he found that everyone else was walking the walk right behind him. What he did and the way in which he did it offers a great model that is applicable in any setting. Joe Montana is one of the best examples I have ever seen that proved you don’t need to shout, stomp, or strut to be a great leader—just do the job and treat people right. Isn’t that an essential element in getting people to trust and follow you? Incredibly, his personality and style didn’t change when Joe began to emerge as maybe the best quarterback in history and the center of attention for every football writer and television reporter in America. He remained conscientious about sharing credit. Consequently, nobody resented, was jealous of, or envied all the adulation and publicity he received.

  • In order to manage people effectively, you must act responsibly and professionally in your capacity as leader. In this regard, you should employ an approach that is based on the following principles:
    1. Treat people like people.Every player on our team wore a number; no player on our team was “just a number.” Treat each member of your organization as a unique person. I was never pals with players, but I never viewed any of them as an anonymous member of an organizational herd.
    2. Seek positive relationships through encouragement, support, and critical evaluation. Maintain an uplifting atmosphere at work with your ongoing positive, enthusiastic, energizing behavior.
    3. Afford everyone equal dignity, respect, and treatment.
    4. Blend honesty and “diplomacy.” At times, it is both humane and practical to soften the heavy blow of a demotion or termination with compassion and empathy. It will also help prevent or reduce a toxic response that can ripple through the organization when word spreads that someone feels he or she has been treated roughly without cause. Nevertheless, “rough treatment” serves a purpose occasionally.
    5. Allow for a wide range of moods, from serious to very relaxed, in the workplace depending on the circumstances.Set the acceptable tone by your own demeanor, and develop the fine art of knowing when to crack the whip or crack a joke. In the middle of our second Super Bowl season, Joe Montana threw three interceptions against Cincinnati in the first half. We were getting beaten decisively. What was the correct response from me? Bark at him to bear down and try harder, scold him, or what? As he came off the field following his third interception, I pulled him over and asked him innocently, “How’s it going out there, Joe?” He got my joke, and I think it took off some of the pressure and anger he had at himself. Things improved, he got going in the second half, and we won. Maybe in another situation my approach would have been more critical. You have to have a feel for it.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. Give no VIP treatment.Except on a very short-term “reward” basis that is understood as such —for example, a special parking spot for the employee of the month.
    9. Speak in positive terms about former members of your organization. This creates a very positive impression and signals that respect and loyalty extend beyond an individual’s time on your payroll.
    10. Demonstrate interest in and support for the extended families of members of the organization.
    11. Communicate on a first-name basis without allowing relationships to become buddy buddy. Deep resentments can develop when others see you playing favorites by exhibiting a special bond with select members of the group.
    12. Don’t let differences or animosity linger.
  • In order to manage people effectively, you must act responsibly and professionally in your capacity as leader. In this regard, you should employ an approach that is based on the following principles:
    1. Treat people like people.Every player on our team wore a number; no player on our team was “just a number.” Treat each member of your organization as a unique person. I was never pals with players, but I never viewed any of them as an anonymous member of an organizational herd.
    2. Seek positive relationships through encouragement, support, and critical evaluation. Maintain an uplifting atmosphere at work with your ongoing positive, enthusiastic, energizing behavior.
    3. Afford everyone equal dignity, respect, and treatment.
    4. Blend honesty and “diplomacy.”At times, it is both humane and practical to soften the heavy blow of a demotion or termination with compassion and empathy. It will also help prevent or reduce a toxic response that can ripple through the organization when word spreads that someone feels he or she has been treated roughly without cause. Nevertheless, “rough treatment” serves a purpose occasionally.
    5. Allow for a wide range of moods, from serious to very relaxed, in the workplace depending on the circumstances.Set the acceptable tone by your own demeanor, and develop the fine art of knowing when to crack the whip or crack a joke. In the middle of our second Super Bowl season, Joe Montana threw three interceptions against Cincinnati in the first half. We were getting beaten decisively. What was the correct response from me? Bark at him to bear down and try harder, scold him, or what? As he came off the field following his third interception, I pulled him over and asked him innocently, “How’s it going out there, Joe?” He got my joke, and I think it took off some of the pressure and anger he had at himself. Things improved, he got going in the second half, and we won. Maybe in another situation my approach would have been more critical. You have to have a feel for it.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. Give no VIP treatment.Except on a very short-term “reward” basis that is understood as such —for example, a special parking spot for the employee of the month.
    9. Speak in positive terms about former members of your organization. This creates a very positive impression and signals that respect and loyalty extend beyond an individual’s time on your payroll.
    10. Demonstrate interest in and support for the extended families of members of the organization.
    11. Communicate on a first-name basis without allowing relationships to become buddybuddy. Deep resentments can develop when others see you playing favorites by exhibiting a special bond with select members of the group.
    12. Don’t let differences or animosity linger.Cleanse the wound before it gets infected.  
  • In his “Letter of Instruction Number 1” (from War As I Knew It), which was written for officers under his command in the U.S. Third Army, Patton offered six key dictates. You should evaluate each one and determine whether you can utilize it in your own “command.”
    1. Remember that praise is more valuable than blame.Remember, too, that your primary mission as a leader is to see with your own eyes and be seen by your own troops while engaged in personal reconnaissance.
    2. Use every means before and after combat to tell troops what they are going to do and what they have done.
    3. Discipline is based on pride in the profession[my italics] of arms, on meticulous attention to details, and on mutual respect and confidence.Discipline must be a habit so ingrained that it is stronger than the excitement of battle or the fear of death.
    4. Officers must assert themselves by example and by voice.They must be preeminent in courage, deportment and dress.
    5. General officers must be seen in the front line during action.
    6. There is a tendency for the chain of command to overload junior officers by excessive requirements in the way of training and reports.You will alleviate this burden by eliminating non-essential demands.
  • The incident only reminded me of what I already knew; namely, that the title I really wanted—the title that indicated the highest praise—was “teacher” or “coach”; combined, they make you a leader. The “Genius” label was an albatross around my neck. Nevertheless, it’s easy to get caught up in or enamored of lofty titles, praise, and flattery as you subconsciously attempt to become the character others have created out of who you are. That character isn’t you, but it’s an addictive attraction if the plaques, awards, and commendations start rolling in. Believing your own press clippings—good or bad—is self-defeating. You are allowing others, oftentimes uninformed others, to tell you who you are. The real damage occurs when you start to believe that future success will come your way automatically because of the great ability of this caricature you have suddenly become, that the hard work and applied intelligence you utilized initially are not as crucial as they once were. That’s when you get lazy; that’s when you let your guard down. When that happens, you’re not a genius—you’re a genuine fool. When the “Genius” title turned on me, I backed away from it as far as I could get. A story got going among fans that the sign on my parking space at 49ers headquarters said “The Professor.” It wasn’t true, but it would have been an improvement over “The Genius.”

  • One Tuesday morning during a preseason workout at our training facility in Santa Clara, California, future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young was practicing a crossing pass route with Brent Jones. Steve threw a bad ball. His mechanics weren’t right—in fact, they were sloppy, especially for someone at his high skill level. Young wasn’t focused on what he was doing; instead, he was just going through the motions. This may not sound serious—one pass among many at practice—but it is a cardinal sin in my philosophy. I was standing directly behind him with my arms across my chest and said sternly, “Lousy! That was laughable, Steve. Damn it, do it again, and this time do it right.” I was very stern, trying to jack up his intensity and get him focused on what he was doing. The squad reset, and Steve took the snap, dropped back three steps, and threw a second pass—this time with a beautiful and perfect motion, physical artistry that made it a little work of art. I said, “That was good. Stay with that,” and walked away rubbing my hands together. He looked over at me and gave me a thumbs-up. Steve had gotten my message (and the message wasn’t so much about his throwing motion as it was about his concentration). My praise was sparse, but meaningful because it was rarely effusive.

  • When I criticized or gave feedback to someone, it wasn’t defeatist. It was always focused on the here and now and never conjured up images or incidents of poor play over the previous days or weeks (for example, “Your motion was lousy. That’s why you’ve been throwing interceptions for the last three weeks. How long is it going to take to get it right? I’m getting tired of seeing this over and over.”). It creates a sense of piling on, of browbeating. When that happens, you lose credibility and respect because the subject of your continuous criticism sees it as a personal attack. Others see it and react the same way. (This is not to say I never piled on or wasn’t occasionally guilty of browbeating.) 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. If you’re perceived as a negative person—always picking, pulling, criticizing —you will simply get tuned out by those around you. Your influence, ability to teach, and opportunity to make progress will be diminished and eventually lost. When that happens, you become useless, a hindrance to progress. When your feedback is interpreted as a personal attack rather than a critique with positive intentions, you are going backward. Constructive criticism is a powerful instrument essential for improving performance. Positive support can be equally productive. Used together by a skilled leader they become the key to maximum results. Most of us seem to be more inclined to offer the negative. I don’t know why, but it’s easier to criticize than to compliment. Find the right mixture for optimum results.

  • Employees can thrive in an environment where they know exactly what is expected of them—even when those expectations are very high. When it comes to telling people what you expect from them, don’t be subtle, don’t be coy, don’t be vague.

  • Quality collaboration is only possible in the presence of quality communication; that is, the free-flowing and robust exchange of information, ideas, and opinions. And “having big ears”—the skill of being a great listener—is the first law of good communication. (The second law is “When you’re not listening, ask good questions.”)

  • For me it meant I had to set aside certain aspects of my own ego—e.g., talking too much—and really listen to what talented individuals in the organization had to say. I had to learn that communication is not a one-way street; it’s a two-way, three-way, every-way street. This is a challenge for some of us to put into practice, because it’s usually a hell of a lot easier to tell somebody what to do than to listen to his or her suggestions and ideas (especially when you think that you have all the answers on a wide range of subjects).

  • “Listen and learn” isn’t a bad motto; neither is “Listen and lead.” In most organizations the leader’s example sets the tone for everyone else. One of the greatest and most neglected skills in leadership is the ability to listen. If someone told me that leadership is as easy as one, two, three, I’d reply, “Only if the one, two, and three are as follows: 1. Listen 2. Learn 3. Lead.”

  • Coach Newell did lots of things right, but I was particularly intrigued by his ability to keep individuals sharp and on their toes—to keep them from falling into a mental comfort zone, which can occur when the person in charge becomes too predictable. This comfort zone is dangerous because it creates an often almost imperceptible lowering of intensity, focus, and energy, which leads directly to reduced effort, additional mistakes, and diminished performance. Watching Pete’s Golden Bears during practices at their gym in Berkeley, I saw that he could suddenly become very worked up, severe, and critical—lashing out without warning or apparent cause. He would spot some minor miscue, and suddenly everything would change. It was something to witness—out of the blue, lightning and thunder from Newell over seemingly nothing situations. And then just as quickly—usually, but not always—his verbal and emotional squall would pass. When he had addressed the little “issue” that had set him off, Pete would become lighthearted and even engage in humor as the practice resumed. But it was evident the players were now on edge and would subsequently ebb and flow with his demeanor, attitude, and emotions—looking to him for a response and reacting to his behavior. He was the focal point the others responded to. Of course, the little “issue” that had set him off—for example, a pass that he declared not crisp—was often an excuse to fix the larger concern, which was usually the level, or lack thereof, of intensity, energy, and attention. Players were kept on their toes because Pete Newell was somewhat unpredictable. They knew that a toughness lurked within and that he was willing and able to bring it forth if he felt it necessary. It kept them on their toes. Effective leaders often have this quality. They understand that if you’re predictably difficult or predictably easy going, others become predictably comfortable. In a highly competitive environment, feeling comfortable is first cousin to being complacent. Personally, when I sensed from time to time that our team or staff was getting comfortable, I wasn’t afraid to exercise whatever acting skills I could summon. During a practice that was lacking high energy and laser like focus, I might suddenly just let my emotions boil over, throw down my clipboard, chew out an assistant coach (they knew what I was up to), and exhibit the emotions and language I’d seen Pete Newell display so effectively: “I can’t take this anymore! We’ve got to pick it up or I’m gonna make some changes here, because this has got to stop!” The players didn’t even know what “this” was. It didn’t matter. What I was doing in that instance was for effect, something to shatter their comfort zones. Having jarred their attention, given them a jolt, I’d get right back to business. Rarely would I get personal or do any damage. It was a somewhat contrived outburst that served like the snarl of a tiger when you get too close to its cage. Used sparingly, it is an effective leadership tool. The people around you must feel somewhat on edge with you at times because they know there’s another side of your personality—ill at ease because they don’t always know what to expect and have come to understand there’s a toughness within you. Ideally, those you lead are driven to excel by the expertise, example, inspiration, and motivation you offer—the Standard of Performance you define and personify—but sometimes you have to snarl to remind them of the consequences of straying from your standards.

  • This is part of the tough (at times severe) side of leadership necessary to eliminate a comfort zone, which can creep into an organization and keep it from pushing on to higher and higher levels. One of the tools I used to accomplish this was to emulate Pete Newell—to shake things up with a somewhat contrived show of temper that comes from nowhere and disappears just as quickly.

  • There are winners, and there are people who would like to be winners but just don’t know how to do it. Intelligent and talented people who are motivated can learn how to become winners if they have someone who will teach them. Leadership, at its best, is exactly that: teaching skills, attitudes, and goals (yes, goals are both defined and taught) to individuals who are part of your organization. Most things in life require good teaching— raising a family and educating children, running a company or sales team, or coaching athletes—so it’s unfortunate that more people don’t spend the time and thought required to do it effectively.

  • 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. In order to have passion, you must love the topic you teach. My love of football and teaching it is so strong that when I was a coach it became hard to shut my mind off and think about something else. I might be half asleep or dreaming, or talking to someone, and my mind would drift away from the conversation and a play would take shape in my mind. I could see all twenty-two players moving in response to what I had drawn up.

  • The greater your expertise, the greater your potential to teach, the stronger and more productive you can be as a leader. Without it you are disabled and will garner less and less respect from your team because they will sense that you’re not on top of things, let alone able to teach them something meaningful. People know when you don’t have the answers. Here’s a good rule of thumb: “The more you know, the higher you go.” To advance in any profession, I believe it is imperative to understand all aspects of that profession, not just one particular area: Only expertise makes you an expert. When assistant coaches approach me and ask, “Bill, what is the best route to getting a head coaching position?” I tell them they must expand their base of knowledge and develop their inventory of skills and proficiencies in all phases of the job: “You may be an offensive coordinator and making more money than your offensive line coach who’s reporting to you, but unless you know offensive line coaching, he’s the de facto offensive coordinator. He determines your fate, because he knows more than you do.” Your team will sense it, that you are not as knowledgeable in what you do as you should be. They will sense that you don’t have the answers, that you lack a strong understanding of the “how” of doing things. When this occurs, they will not follow you. A teacher gains expertise by seeking out great teachers, mentors, and other sources of information and wisdom in a relentless effort to add to his or her own knowledge. My teachers—outstanding in their own particular ways—included John Ralston at Stanford; Al Davis at Oakland (and by default, the great Sid Gillman under whom Al had served in San Diego with the Chargers); the Bengals’ Paul Brown; Tommy Prothro of the San Diego Chargers; Bob Bronzan, my coach at San Jose State, where I was a wide receiver; and others who showed me the value of teaching and how to do it. (In business this means actively seeking the counsel of those you respect in your profession, as well as studying printed material and publications that you determine will provide pertinent input.)   
  • To me, the intricacies and potential of each individual play were exciting; each one was like a ten thousand-dollar Rolex watch with unique, highly crafted, and precision-made features that I cherished. I wanted to convey my sincere enthusiasm and real excitement to the players. I did it with facial and body language—moving assuredly and with energy, rubbing my hands together as if I were savoring a fine meal. And I did it with an enthusiastic tone of voice and positive words. The goal was to get the team as enthusiastic and excited as I was about the play’s potential. I couldn’t do it by reciting information as if I were reading from a phone book. Here is a list of descriptions I used to set up and create excitement for seven different plays during a presentation in preparation for a game with the Dallas Cowboys: • “Guys, this one should knock ’em on their asses!” • “Now, here’s one I think is almost perfect for us.” • “I think we’re gonna have some fun with this one. It’s a beauty!” • “Fellas, this next one should score. No question about it.” • “Here’s one play that is really just excellent. Forget excellent. It’s better than excellent.” • “This one will work just great. You’ll see why right now.” • “Oh, boy, this is terrific. Just look at what this one does!” Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Each one was something special, with its own special introduction and personality. Other teams might use just a number to identify a play. My plays were never just numbers to me, and I didn’t want them to be just numbers to our team. They were distinct entities with personality, character, and potential of their own. Never a number. They were my children, and I bragged about them like a proud parent.

  • One of the keys to successfully executing the complexities of the West Coast Offense was my devotion to the principle of persistence. We did the same drills over and over again; I said essentially the same thing over and over, discussed the same information, concepts, and principles over and over. Gradually, my teaching stuck. Eventually, successful execution became almost automatic, even under extreme duress, because like air, my teaching was everywhere. While passion, expertise, communication, and persistence are the four essentials of good teaching and learning, I would also add these nuts-and-bolts practices to facilitate what you do as a leader who is a great teacher:
    1. Use straightforward language.No need to get fancy.
    2. Be concise.For many leaders it’s harder to be brief than to be long-winded. We love to hear ourselves talk.
    3. Account for a wide range of difference in knowledge, experience, and comprehension among members of your organization.For me it could be seen in the way I communicated one on one with an experienced superstar such as Jerry Rice or a first-year offensive guard who was learning the ropes of our system. This difference in content depending on whom I was talking to and in what circumstance was always factored in to my teaching.
    4. Account for some members of the group being more receptive and ready to learn than others(for reasons out of your control).
    5. Be observant during your comments.Know if you’re connecting.
    6. Strongly encourage note taking.
    7. Employ a somewhat unpredictable presentation style.“Droning on” is the most common style, and you may have to work on stepping it up so that you don’t fall into the “drone trap.”
    8. Organize with logical, sequential building blocks in your communication.
    9. Encourage appropriate audience participation.
    10. Use visual aids.
    11. Remember Sun-tzu: “With more sophistication comes more control.”The more you work at refining your teaching—increasing its sophistication—the greater your control of the teaching (and learning) process. 
  • Starting day one as head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh came in and started cleaning out the building of people—fired everybody that he could fire, like assistant coaches, staff, and office personnel. He couldn’t fire the players all at once, but he was quick to start getting rid of them, too, the ones who didn’t meet his performance or attitude standards. Within two years, much of the team he had inherited was gone. The Super Bowl champions his third year only had a few of the original hold overs. He had cleaned house. One coach he kept on from the prior administration, Mike White, he knew from when they had been assistant coaches together, and Bill liked his expertise and attitude. But there weren’t many, hardly any at all. He wanted people in his new organization who did it his way, and believe me, he had a crystal clear concept of what “his way” was.  
  • Bill liked order. If he walked into an office and saw a picture hanging crooked, he’d go over and straighten it. That sounds silly, but it goes to his desire for precision in how things looked and were done—a picture on the wall had to be exactly right, and a play on the field had to be exactly right. That same attitude applied to media relations and the message the media got from the 49ers organization. One man gave the media the message: Bill Walsh. The coaches who worked with him were not supposed to talk to reporters about the team. Bill did that; Bill controlled the output of information to the media. He was a master at making us feel that we were persecuted by the outside world—discounted or ridiculed. Bill had a hundred different ways to get the team cranked up about having to prove to the media or other teams that they were wrong to dismiss us. He didn’t like showboating or anything that suggested somebody was better than anybody else in his organization. Mutual respect among all employees was big for him, and boy, if he saw evidence to the contrary, he’d go off. One of his assistant coaches owned a Corvette with a personalized license plate that drew attention to himself—that this guy was a coach with the 49ers, which suggested, “I’m a big shot.” Right away Bill spotted it in our parking lot, and that night during our coaches’ meeting, he lit into it: “Somebody in this room has a red Corvette with a stupid license plate on it. I want the #@!% license plate off that car before you come in here to work tomorrow.” He was livid. “Whoa,” I thought to myself, “this guy is tough.” Of course, that’s what Bill wanted me and the other coaches to think. He was a great motivator because he had such a grasp of all the techniques to keep individuals plugged in and paying attention. He could really read a room—he’d love you up, but then, if you screwed up, watch out. You were always on a short string, on the edge of your chair, because he kept you guessing. He could turn it on and turn it off at exactly the right times. We were nervous about getting too happy and even more nervous about getting down in the dumps, because we knew Bill would tolerate neither. He’d say to us coaches, “I’m going to yell at you in front of the players once in a while. When that happens, don’t get upset with me. Your players will work even harder for you because they’ll feel sorry for you.” Bill used that one in training camp. However, most of the time he wasn’t doing it for effect. I remember him spotting an assistant coach allowing a slant pattern to be run just a little bit off the exact route Bill had designed. It was just a few inches off, but from the other side of the field he saw it and started running all the way across the practice field, shouting to do it right. Bill would get incensed if you messed with his plays. He knew they would work, but only if they were done exactly right. That’s why it was so important to him when he began hiring his assistant coaches at San Francisco that we be good teachers. He wanted things taught properly—his offense, of course, but then the defense, the special teams, the staff responsibilities. I think he felt those plays he was designing were very special, like a new invention that was guaranteed to work, but they wouldn’t work unless the coaches were good teachers. He didn’t want puppets, however, guys just taking orders. He would even throw out some radical schemes on plays for us to consider, just to shake up our thinking. He wanted input, but once the decision was made, he wanted it carried out precisely. Bill would be there at practice with three-by-five cards and one of those little golf pencils in his back pocket. If he pulled out a three-by-five card and starting writing, you just hoped it wasn’t about something you’d done wrong, because he’d let you know about it that night. Bill raised the self-image of the organization. Players, for example, eventually had lockers with their pictures and names on them and plaques under their names listing any awards they had won—MVP, Pro Bowl, and others. He had a brilliant mind coupled with a steel will. When it came to leadership, running the whole show, Bill was very strong—no question about who was in charge of things. But he had another side to him that was harder to understand. Several times during his ten years with the 49ers, he got so discouraged, depressed maybe, that he was on the verge of calling it quits, giving up.

  • Bill put so much into his coaching and leadership that he became drained emotionally over time. He never let down, even for a second, but I think the fun kind of went out of it for him after the second Super Bowl championship. But through it all, you really wanted to fight for him. And we did.

  • My checklist of personal qualities—assets—in potential staff members:
    1. A fundamental knowledge of the area he or she has been hired to manage.You may think this is so self-evident it’s insulting to include. However, often we are tempted to hire simply on the basis of friendship or other user-friendly characteristics. They can be important. Expertise is more important.
    2. A relatively high—but not manic—level of energy and enthusiasm and a personality that is upbeat, motivated, and animated.Groups will often collectively take on the personality of their department head (e.g., in football, their position coach). A negative, complaining staff member will be emulated by those he or she is in charge of. So will a positive go-getter.
    3. The ability to discern talent in potential employees whom he or she will recommend to you.
    4. An ability to communicate in a relaxed yet authoritative—but not authoritarian—manner.
    5. Unconditional loyalty to both you and other staff members.If your staff members are chipping away at one another, the organization is weakened from within—like a tree full of termites. There is, in my view, no offense more serious than disloyalty.
  • My checklist for keeping good staff members on the same page:
    1. You must establish clear parameters for your staff regarding the overall method by which you expect things to be done.They must be reminded—instructed, when necessary—of your Standard of Performance: philosophy, style and substance, strategies and tactics.
    2. Any philosophical differences that crop up must be identified and addressed by you in private meetings with the individual(s). Sweeping them under the rug is misdirected management.
    3. You must recognize that staff members may work in different ways, using approaches that are at variance with yours.This can be relatively inconsequential as long as you and the staff member are philosophically compatible on the key issues (e.g., attention to detail, exhibiting respect to all members of the organization). Insisting on a totalitarian, lockstep mentality removes creativity from within.
    4. To ensure unanimity throughout the staff, make unannounced visits to various department meetings.You can lose elements of your team to a maverick staff member if you’re invisible long enough.
    5. 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. Assigning complete control without any monitoring of methods or means can allow a separate kingdom to develop, which will split your organization into factions.
    6. 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.He or she may also, on occasion, unconsciously revert to his or her own techniques or philosophy. This does not constitute insubordination until you have firmly pointed out the issue and the staff member continues to put forth ideas that are counter to what you want done. Then you must take corrective action that goes beyond a “reminder.”
    7. Be alert for those staff members who seek to use their position to teach and express their personal beliefs. Politics and religion are the two most common areas.
    8. Remember Mike Ditka’s comment on leadership after his Bears won a Super Bowl championship: “Personal contact is part of hands-on management. Go to the other guy’s office; tell him what you have in mind so there is no misunderstanding.” 
  • My checklist of personal qualities—assets—in potential staff members:
    1. A fundamental knowledge of the area he or she has been hired to manage.You may think this is so self-evident it’s insulting to include. However, often we are tempted to hire simply on the basis of friendship or other user-friendly characteristics. They can be important. Expertise is more important.
    2. A relatively high—but not manic—level of energy and enthusiasm and a personality that is upbeat, motivated, and animated.Groups will often collectively take on the personality of their department head (e.g., in football, their position coach). A negative, complaining staff member will be emulated by those he or she is in charge of. So will a positive go-getter.
    3. The ability to discern talent in potential employees whom he or she will recommend to you.
    4. An ability to communicate in a relaxed yet authoritative—but not authoritarian—manner.
    5. Unconditional loyalty to both you and other staff members.If your staff members are chipping away at one another, the organization is weakened from within—like a tree full of termites.  There is, in my view, no offense more serious than disloyalty.
  • My checklist for keeping good staff members on the same page:
    1. You must establish clear parameters for your staff regarding the overall method by which you expect things to be done.They must be reminded—instructed, when necessary—of your Standard of Performance: philosophy, style and substance, strategies and tactics.
    2. Any philosophical differences that crop up must be identified and addressed by you in private meetings with the individual(s). Sweeping them under the rug is misdirected management.
    3. You must recognize that staff members may work in different ways, using approaches that are at variance with yours.This can be relatively inconsequential as long as you and the staff member are philosophically compatible on the key issues (e.g., attention to detail, exhibiting respect to all members of the organization). Insisting on a totalitarian, lockstep mentality removes creativity from within.
    4. To ensure unanimity throughout the staff, make unannounced visits to various department meetings.You can lose elements of your team to a maverick staff member if you’re invisible long enough.
    5. 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. Assigning complete control without any monitoring of methods or means can allow a separate kingdom to develop, which will split your organization into factions.
    6. 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. He or she may also, on occasion, unconsciously revert to his or her own techniques or philosophy. This does not constitute insubordination until you have firmly pointed out the issue and the staff member continues to put forth ideas that are counter to what you want done. Then you must take corrective action that goes beyond a “reminder.”
    7. Be alert for those staff members who seek to use their position to teach and express their personal beliefs. Politics and religion are the two most common areas.
    8. Remember Mike Ditka’s comment on leadership after his Bears won a Super Bowl championship:“Personal contact is part of hands-on management. Go to the other guy’s office; tell him what you have in mind so there is no misunderstanding.”
  • There are specific actions I took based on the lessons learned after the 49ers’ experience with Success Disease following our first Super Bowl championship. They are very effective, although there is no guarantee that in following them you will fend off the fallout from achievement; specifically, Success Disease:
    1. Formally celebrate and observe the momentous achievement—the victory—and make sure that everyone feels ownership in it.Praise, bonuses, and other rewards can make it special. This is a unique opportunity to strengthen the bond everyone feels to your organization, especially the special role players who get less attention.
    2. Allow pats on the back for a limited time. Then formally return to business as usual by letting everyone know the party is over. Nevertheless, don’t tighten down too far. Victory can produce enormous energy—so powerful and overwhelming that in sports grown men will burst out in tears and run around like little children at Christmas. You must channel that powerful force and enthusiasm into the work ahead to solidify and build on the gains made by your team in achieving their recent success. Make sure the power of your victory propels you forward in a controlled manner.
    3. Be apprehensive about applause.Instruct your team on the pitfalls of listening to accolades from those outside (and even inside) the organization. The praise can become a hindrance to buckling down to the hard sacrifice that will be required ahead. Ongoing applause can turn the head of the most disciplined and determined member of your team. Watch that it doesn’t turn your own head.
    4. Develop a plan for your staff that gets them back into the mode of operation that produced success in the first place.Don’t assume it will happen. Hold meetings to explain what steps must be taken to sustain momentum; refocus personnel by covering in detail why success was achieved; review with them why they prevailed.
    5. 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.Point out deficiencies and the need to find remedies for them.
    6. Be demanding.Do not relax. Hold everyone to even higher expectations. Don’t relax your Standard of Performance. The Standard of Performance is always in a state of refinement to raise performance. That’s your gold standard, the point of reference above everything else, including the won-lost record, Super Bowl titles, shareholder value, quotas, sales, or praise from people who don’t have to get down in the trenches with you and do the real work.
    7. Don’t fall prey to overconfidence so that you feel you can or should make change for the sake of change.Change is inevitable, but change is not a casual consideration. When you’re flush with victory, you can take on a mind-set that says, “Hey, let’s try this!” Only in the most desperate situation is change made simply for the sake of change.
    8. Use the time immediately following success as an opportunity to make hard decisions, including elevation or demotion of individuals who contributed—or didn’t—to the victory. This window is brief. Use it.
    9. Never fall prey to the belief that getting to the top makes everything easy.In fact, what it makes easier is the job of motivating those who want your spot at the top. Achievement, great success, puts a big bull’s-eye on your back. You are now the target—clearly identified—for all your competitors to aim at.
    10. Recognize that mastery is a process, not a destination. When your organization achieves a significant goal, you must demonstrate the strongest and most demanding adherence to your own established ideals and principles—the Standard of Performance you abide by. This is essential, because if you fall prey to the consequences of winning, you will soon be dealing with the consequences of losing.
  • Hardman had given up on the San Francisco 49ers too soon. Twenty-four months after the trade, we won Super Bowl XVI. In some small way, the championship came about because I had been willing to remove players—even those with great talent—whose actions or attitude didn’t conform to the Standard of Performance, who didn’t get with the program. It’s worth remembering that some individuals have “situational character”—their attitude (and subsequent performance) are linked to results. Good results? Great attitude. Bad results? Bad attitude. Cedric was like that by the time I took over at San Francisco. He was a negative presence in our midst—a malignant force within the organization. A leader must be able to identify these types of situations and not shy away from removing malcontents from the organization. It takes true character to stay with an organization when things seem to be at their bleakest. It is also my opinion that lack of the “stick-with-it” attitude is accompanied by a certain lack of intelligence; not always, not with Cedrick, but often. The thick-witted person can’t deal with the hard knocks after a while, and that’s when the complaining begins. Some define character as simply aspiring to high ideals and standards. I disagree. Many people have lofty aspirations. Unfortunately, aspiring isn’t enough. You must also have the strength of commitment and sacrifice to adhere to those standards and ideals in both good timesandbad.  
  • During a consultation with his doctor, Ronnie asked if there were any alternatives to the bone-graft operation that might speed things along. His surgeon replied, “I don’t recommend it, but we could amputate your finger, put the whole hand in a cast, and you’d be okay to play that first game.” I wish I could have seen the look on his surgeon’s face when Ronnie said, “Well, that’s what we’ll do. Take it off, doctor.” Ronnie Lott was in the starting lineup a few weeks later against Tampa Bay, wearing a big cast and minus part of the pinky on his left hand. While he was highly volatile—very overt—he had no grand plan to bring people along, but did it with his own drive, personality, and determination. He provides a good example of how good character is contagious. Ronnie drove others to sacrifice at his level by setting extreme personal standards of physical intensity and concentration for himself in practice (especially in practice, where it can be tempting to coast) and games that exceeded even my own expectations. He simply demanded maximum effort and effective execution from himself at all times and refused to quit until it was achieved. Since he never felt it was totally and completely achieved, he never quit. His will to improve created a very real sense that if you wanted to associate with him professionally—to be on a “Ronnie Lott” team—you were expected to sacrifice to the same extreme degree he did. When a grueling set of push-ups was concluded by the coaching staff, Ronnie would often call for more; he would be the one setting the standard higher and higher. This was true during the season he joined us and San Francisco won a Super Bowl; it was equally true the following season when our won-lost record went in the tank: 3-6. He never quit. “Ronnie Lott” character reveals itself most starkly in two completely different circumstances: when victory or success is almost a given, and conversely, when there is little or no likelihood of victory. The former tempts an individual to become complacent, to ease up; the latter tempts an individual to start bellyaching and quit. Ronnie never gave up or let down. Consistent commitment and sacrifice in all situations was his trademark.

  • He did what individuals with this kind of character do when facing either circumstance: Lott was constant in his drive to excel. This is very hard for an individual to do, but imagine how it transforms those within the organization. And imagine the pleasure it brings to the life of a leader.  
  • When you bring a “Ronnie Lott” into your organization, you are actually bringing several “Ronnie Lotts” aboard, because they create others in their own image. His teammate and fellow Hall of Fame player, running back Roger Craig, shared that same work ethic, intensity, and enthusiasm. Here’s an example: Roger would often race all the way to the goal line when he carried the ball—inpractice. I didn’t ask him to do that; he had that drive within. Push. Push. Push. Lott and Craig were two different personalities that exuded their formidable character in different but equally effective ways.

  • Guys like Ronnie and Roger aren’t found all over the place. Both exemplify the message of UCLA’s coach John Wooden: “I wanted players who had character, not players who were characters.” Of course, sometimes you get both. Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, who played such an important role in our first Super Bowl year, was a tremendous competitor with character. He also was a character. On many occasions, before games, he would put on his San Francisco 49ers uniform at his house, smear the eye black under his eyes, and call a cab to take him to the game. He would arrive at Candlestick Park ready to go, in full uniform, including cleats! And then Jack Reynolds would deliver the goods out on the field. You go nowhere without character. Character is essential to individuals, and their cumulative character is the backbone of your winning team.

  • At the beginning of each year’s training camp, I made the following promise to our team: “Every single one of you guys will have at least one chance to win a game for us. I ask you to prepare for that opportunity with the attitude that it’s a certainty, not a possibility. Prepare and be ready when your time comes, because it will come. Can you do that for me?” When Joe Montana first heard me say this, he may have thought, “Is Bill crazy? That’s what I’m here for, to win games.” But of course, my statement wasn’t directed at Joe. Those comments were aimed specifically at the so-called bottom 20 percent of our team—the backups, “benchwarmers,” and special role players, those who didn’t see much action during the regular season. In a sports organization this is the group that often determines your fate—they make the difference between whether you win or lose. In business it may be a customer-service representative or another less prominent “player” who fails to address a problem due to lack of readiness or a feeling that his or her particular job doesn’t really mean that much in the big picture. Future Hall of Fame players such as Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, and others with plenty of playing time didn’t need me to remind them to get physically, mentally, and emotionally ready for action. Rather, it was the bottom 20 percent who were more likely to feel overlooked, unimportant, and unattached to our organization.

  • Members of this group can become a serious distraction and liability, because as their attitude worsens, their commitment wavers and their carping increases. When the bottom 20 percent is dissatisfied—doesn’t feel they’re a real part of your team, that is, appreciated—their comments, perspective, and reactions—their “bitching”—is seen, heard, and absorbed by those who are positive and productive.

  • You need to stretch people to help them achieve their full potential. Joe Montana and Steve Young are quarterbacks who came to the 49ers with the highest personal expectations of themselves; neither lacked in confidence, and both believed they could do just about anything. I let them know I thought they could do even more than anything. You can do the same with your own talented staff and personnel. The most powerful way to do this is by having the courage to say, “I believe in you,” in whatever words and way are comfortable for you. These four words—or their equivalents—constitute the most inspirational message a leader can convey. There are many different ways to do it, but the fundamental and underlying message must always be the same: “I believe in you. I know you can do the job.” Few things embolden and create self-confidence in a person like hearing those words from an individual whose judgment he or she respects, especially if that person is you, his or her boss.  
  • Eddie DeBartolo was furious and seriously considered firing me. He was correct in the sense that it was my poor leadership judgment that had been responsible for our bad performance. It was my fault. I had strayed from my instincts and understanding that when it comes to demanding extreme effort, a good leader must exercise extreme prudence. This is one of the most difficult areas of leadership. By instinct we—leaders—want to run hard all the time; by intellect we know this is not possible. Reconciling those two positions in the context of leadership is an ongoing challenge. I believe the one time in my career when I didn’t successfully reconcile the two, it cost us a championship. It’s an easy trap to fall into—pushing your team to the brink and then over—because there is comfort in knowing that if we are defeated, at least we worked—and worked our team—as hard as possible. For a hardworking leader that’s easy to do. What’s difficult to do is recognize when extra effort, extreme exertion, working “as hard as possible” starts to produce diminishing returns.

  • Willpower was not a commodity I could simply hand out like a couple of aspirin tablets. Whether it’s a 350-pound tackle, an employee, or a child, we must try our best to encourage, support, and inspire, but eventually—ultimately—people must do it for themselves. No one else can do it for them, including you, regardless of whether you’re a head coach, CEO, manager, nutritionist, or doctor. A closet floor covered with KFC boxes reminded me of that.

  • Obviously, I felt I could turn things around, but I needed to buy time. I did it, in part, by keeping Eddie Jr. in the loop; fully informed—perhaps overly informed—on every single phase of the operation. This included providing him with a budget manual (thick), an operations manual (thick), a personnel manual (thick), an overall set of job descriptions that included the specific job of each player and my evaluation of that individual (thick), and a detailed listing of my performance goals and expectations (even thicker). On and on and on. Paper. Paper. Paper. The information was not frivolous “filler,” but substantive and sizable. I wanted the owner (and his advisers) to understand that I was applying maximum effort and paying attention to every single solitary detail of the family’s massive financial investment. I believe the voluminous detailing of my efforts and plans bought me precious time. The hands-off patience Eddie Jr. afforded me in the beginning contributed greatly to winning our first Super Bowl championship. He was a terrific boss to work for during my early years as head coach and general manager of his team. I believe this was due in some measure to the fact that my ongoing effort to keep him totally informed gave him comfort. Positive results—winning—count most. But until those results come through your door, a heavy dose of documentation relating to what you’ve done and what you’re doing, planning to do, and hoping to do may buy you just enough extra time to actually do it. Whether they read it or not, flood your superiors with information that is documented—projections, evaluations, reports on progress, status updates. Then ask for periodic meetings. In a very professional way, force them to understand that you’re doing everything you possibly can and that it’s documented; in fact, they’re holding it in that large folder in their hands. Open and honest communication with your superiors, both written and verbal, is a valuable tool in keeping them from coming to the wrong conclusions. It can be the difference between being stabbed in the back or patted on the back.   
  • While mollifying those who may decide your fate during a losing streak or turnaround effort—the boss, board of directors, or shareholders—you also need to be absolutely disciplined in focusing your own attention on what really matters. Here are a dozen daily reminders that will help keep you on the right track:
    1. Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize.
    2. Exhibit an inner toughness emanating from four of the most effective survival tools a leader can possess: expertise, composure, patience, and common sense.
    3. Maintain your level of professional ethics and all details of your own Standard of Performance.
    4. Don’t isolate yourself.Keep in mind that as troubles mount, your relationships with personnel become even more critical. They are the key to holding the staff together. (Don’t get too friendly, however. Familiarity can be deadly.)
    5. Don’t let the magnitude of the challenge take you away from the incremental steps necessary to effect change.Continue to be detail oriented.
    6. Exude an upbeat and determined attitude.Never, ever express doubt, but avoid an inappropriate sunny optimism in dark times.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.
    9. 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.
    10. Don’t plead with employees to “do better.”
    11. Avoid continual threatening or chastising.
    12. 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.)
  • All along the way, I was paying attention to my teachers—unofficial mentors. While I was an assistant coach teaching others how to play football, others were teaching me how to coach football. By the time I was named head coach at Stanford University, I had a virtual PhD in coaching and leadership. Stanford football—head coach for two years—was my postdoctorate. In a sense, the day I arrived at 49ers headquarters as head coach (and soon thereafter, general manager) I could have been wearing a cap and gown and holding a parchment paper that said, “William Ernest Walsh, Doctor of Philosophy, Modern Football, Coaching, and Leadership.” I certainly wasn’t the only head coach who had that kind of “academic” credentialing, but I was lucky to be among those who did. My expertise accumulated because I made it my job to study others, to learn along the way. Some are lucky and find themselves blessed with a mentor who truly makes a difference throughout their life. But you can make the biggest difference of all by yourself. There are mentors in our professions teaching lessons (good and bad) that are free for your inquiring mind. You must be aggressive in acquiring what they teach and adapting it to your own leadership philosophy and playbook.

  • In my experience, there has never been a leader who arrived fully formed, who figured it out all by him- or herself. Ralph Waldo Emerson described a great and creative person as one who “finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries. Thus all originality is relative. Every thinker is retrospective.” We learn from others. Always there are mentors—some official, some unofficial. We apprentice when we are young, and it should continue even when we are old. A good leader is always learning. The great leaders start learning young and continue until their last breath.  
  • Then we heard this coach from Stanford University was coming in to take over—Bill Walsh. No big deal. He’d be my fifth head coach in four years at San Francisco, so I figured he’d last as long as the others; that is, not long. In fact, the whole team was skeptical about his chances. But from day one I could see things were going to be different. We arrived at training camp and Bill came in and gave a short speech to all of us. He said, “I know what some of you guys sitting there are thinking. You’re thinking, ‘I was here before Walsh arrived, and I’ll be here when Walsh is gone.’ Well, you better think about this too: If you can’t play for me, and this is the worst team in the National Football League, where else are you going to go; who in the hell is gonna hire you?” And many of us sitting there thought to ourselves, “Hmmmm, maybe he’s got a point there.” That was my first taste of his ability to kind of twist your mind a little bit. No rah-rah speech, no threats, no promises. Instead Bill came in through the side door. But that’s just a tiny example of his comprehensive leadership arsenal.  
  • I saw immediately that he had a singular focus: on being first class, on being the best, on being the greatest. But lots of guys have that—the desire to be the best. Here’s the difference: Bill knew exactly how to do it, the specifics, not just for his quarterback but for a receptionist answering the phones; not just for a backup left tackle but for groundskeepers. Somehow he knew what it was, what constituted greatness for every single job in his organization. He had that in his head. He knew what a spreadsheet looks like, what a marketing presentation should look like, and all the rest. Detailed concepts. And he hired the very best people to do the jobs that he needed them to do. And in most cases he had the good sense to get out of the way and let them do their job—a very undervalued management skill. Bill had a plan for everything, a Standard of Performance for each one of us that was so clear he could spell it out exactly. And he did. If you were a San Francisco 49er, you were not foggy on what his goal was for you specifically—what he wanted you to do—and for the organization too. Right from the start, he really got out there and coached—rolled up his sleeves and got totally into teaching what he was aiming for.

  • After three or four years, Bill started giving each of us individually the Talk. He called you into his little office in that rat hole of a building we were in on Nevada Street in Redwood City, California, and gave you a synopsis of how he saw your future. You could tell when a guy came down from his office and he’d heard a version of reality from Bill that he didn’t like. He called me in one time after I’d had the best season of my career and said, “Randy, you probably have five to six years left in the NFL. But my guess is that here, with us, you’ve got three or four years.” I gulped: “What?” I came down from his office with one of those looks on my face I’d seen on others. But he was doing everybody a service, because he was absolutely right. And that’s a little piece of why he was ahead of his time. He was looking out for the welfare of organization, but also the players, by helping us deal with that harsh little reality; namely, we weren’t playing football forever, and we certainly weren’t playing for him forever. He didn’t lead us down a rosy path. He gave us the truth.

  • You never stop learning, perfecting, refining—molding your skills. You never stop depending on the fundamentals—sustaining, maintaining, and improving. Jerry and Joe, maybe the best ever at their positions, at the last stages of their careers were still working very hard on the fundamental things that high school kids won’t do because it’s too damn dull. It wasn’t dull to Jerry and Joe, because they understood the absolute and direct connection between intelligently directed hard work and achieving your potential. We all do; you do; I do. Everybody who’s a serious player knows what it takes. The difference is how much you’re willing to give to get there. For us, there is no mystery to mastery. And it applies to football players and coaches, general managers and executives in sports or business. It applies to anyone anywhere who wants to get really good—who wants to master his or her profession. It applies to you.  
  • What does total effort and 100 percent commitment and sacrifice look like? The leader—head coach in my case—is the one who answers that question by example for the entire team; you demonstrate in your behavior what it looks like. Just talking about it, exhorting those in your organization to “give it all you’ve got” is close to meaningless. It’s like telling someone what constitutes a great movie. They’ve got to see it to know it. Same thing with a voracious appetite for work. Most people don’t have it; many people can achieve it; one person is charged with setting the standard and demonstrating what it means: you. During my years as head coach both at Stanford University and with the San Francisco 49ers, I believe it is safe to say there was no single individual in the organization—player, assistant coach, trainer, staff member, groundskeeper, or anyone else—who could accurately say he or she out-worked me. Not one. I can state that with no fear of contradiction. Some worked as hard—nobody worked harder.  
  • I never asked anyone to do more than I was willing to do, nor what I wasn’t willing to do. Nobody could ever—not once—point at me and say, “Walsh sits on his ass in his office all day while we do the work.” When that sentiment spreads through an organization, you have signaled that “sitting on your ass all day” is an accepted standard of performance.

  • Some of our great leaders come from the military, not just America’s, but those we fought against. General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, as he was known commanding Germany’s tank brigades in North Africa during World Ward II, understood the power of example in the area of effort. Here’s what he said: “A commander must accustom his staff to a high tempo from the outset, and continuously keep them up to it. If he once allows himself to be satisfied with norms, or anything less than an all-out effort, he gives up the race from the starting post, and will sooner or later be taught a bitter lesson.” A high tempo from the outset and continuously throughout; dissatisfaction with the usual norms; insistence on all-out effort? Rommel understood hard work and the importance of demonstrating it to his troops. The same applies to your troops. You’re the one who shows them what all-out effort really means, what hard work looks like. You cannot do that if you’re invisible, cooped up in your office instead of being out there with your team. A leader’s great work ethic must been seen to be perceived, must be perceived if it is to be the organization’s norm.

  • When it’s done perfectly at its highest level, football is art and gives me such great fulfillment. Anything less, the botched play, casual effort, sloppy execution, inept play calling, even if it gains ground or scores points, was very disturbing—painful—to me on an aesthetic level. I was never able to take refuge in a winning score if it was produced by shoddy performance—bad football. Thus, if we won, I cared about how we won; if we lost, I cared about how we lost. I didn’t want to lose by forty points; I’d prefer to lose by thirty-nine. If we won by twenty, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and try hard to figure out how we could have scored twenty-one points. It wasn’t increasing or decreasing the point differential that was so intriguing to me, but rather increasing the quality of our execution and decision making—the quality of the football we played.

  • Had I miscalculated or ignored information that was there for me to see and evaluate? Why and where did our execution break down? Where were our decisions—my decisions—flawed or dead wrong? On and on and on. It was, I think, perfection that I was pursuing. Whatever it was, beyond the score I had a passion for figuring out how we could have performed at a higher and higher level of excellence. Good or bad, win or lose, “What caused what, and how can it be improved?” was my recurrent question, an obsession. At 2 A.M. I’d be staring up at the ceiling or tossing around in bed. Eventually, I’d get up, pace around, sit down in the next room to write some notes. Then back to pacing, slowly analyzing before writing down additional observations or ideas. Finally, as the sun was getting ready to come up, I’d go back to bed and try to get a few minutes of sleep. It was like this after every single game I coached at San Francisco for ten years, close to it on many other nights. By the end of the season, I was a mess physically and emotionally. All of this had less to do with running up the score or trying to lose by fewer points than with how I perceived the entire process of leadership and striving for success. To me it was a puzzle to be solved, pieces to be found and put in place, solutions to be figured out. I had a passion for trying to determine how we could have performed at a higher level, how we could achieve perfection, or at least get closer and closer and closer.

  • There is a ritual, sort of a crescendo, that takes you to the very peak of preparation and readiness. The gladiator is thinking, mentally narrowing his focus, as he goes through the ritual before the game. It draws him upward smoothly into the increasing intensity and pressure of the event like a high-performance car going from zero to sixty, the gears shifting seamlessly and without notice. In addition to our pregame discussions, I had my own ritual as a coach before each kickoff and did it almost unconsciously. I always went to my locker first and then walked through the locker room, taking exactly the same route each time. I would sit in my office and watch another NFL game on television for five minutes or so—not really paying much attention to it, just distracting myself. Then I would leave my office, and just before going out to the field I would shake hands with every single player on our team. If I got done and had missed one of them, I somehow knew it and would search him out and shake hands. It was that ritual that helped me to create the mind-set I wanted before each game. It helped me to focus on what I was about to do, allowed me to methodically narrow my concentration to the point where I could block out everything but the game plan and its execution. The routine was part of the grounding process in which I sought to eradicate worry, excitement, stress, distractions, hopes, fears, and all personal issues. It was like walking into a completely different room mentally, like being on a different planet. And it didn’t end when I left the locker room.

  • One of the reasons the 49ers won five Super Bowls in fourteen years is that we expected veterans to do everything possible to bring along rookies. In effect, they were expected to train their own replacements, and it was one of the reasons I prohibited hazing. I wanted new players, new staff members, new scouts, and everyone else who joined us to sense immediately they had joined an organization with a unique environment. I stressed to veterans that we should take pride in welcoming the new arrivals who could help the team win and create and carry on the 49ers tradition. To help us accomplish this goal, the veterans were instructed to help others learn the ropes, do the job better (even if it was their own job they were training someone else to do). Thus, the body of knowledge a veteran player had accumulated—especially as it pertained to my Standard of Performance—was being assimilated by new employees, rookies, and first and second-year players in a very effective manner. In a sense, I made teachers out of my students. The players became coaches. This built-in crew of teachers exists in your own organization. Tap into it.

  • In your own professional activities, remember that a reputation for fair play—treating people right—can be a big part of a potential employee’s decision to join you or a current and valued employee’s desire to remain. It can infuse your team with strength in creating a self-image that transcends a sense of being in a band of mercenaries. It can matter more than money. When it comes to deciding how you treat people, exploitation, expedience, and self-interest are a formula for creating a team of individuals who will soon be looking to join another team. I learned many great lessons from Paul Brown, but “treating people right” was not among them. That lesson was one I learned from Tommy Prothro.

  • Let me suggest nine steps you can take that involve treating people right, for having a healthy heart in your organization:
    1. Afford each person the same respect, support, and fair treatment you would expect if your roles were reversed.Deal with people individually, not as objects who are part of a herd— that’s the critical factor.
    2. 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.
    3. Demonstrate a pronounced commitment to employees by providing a work environment that enables them to achieve their maximum potential and productivity.
    4. Acknowledge the uniqueness of each employee and the need he or she has for a reasonable degree of job security and self-actualization. You don’t own him or her.
    5. The most talented personnel often are very independent minded.This requires that you carefully consider how you relate to and communicate with this type of individual. Creative people usually bring a passion to seeing their ideas put into play as quickly as possible. They must be helped to understand that not every idea is appropriate and that coming up with a new concept is just the start of a process that includes evaluation, comparisons, practicability, and more. But be careful not to quash an idea-friendly environment in your organization.
    6. 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.When this is not the case, you are well served to explain the reasons behind the divergence to the person who feels badly treated—for example, when he or she is passed over for promotion. (For me, occasionally a player wanted to play one position when, in fact, he was better suited to another. I attempted to explain this to the individual whose goal was being denied. You may have an individual who similarly needs direction to play to his or her strength within your organization. And you may have to explain how this benefits the goal of the team.)
    7. People are most comfortable with how they are being treated when their duties are laid out in specific detailand their performance can be gauged by specific metrics. The key is to document—clarify—those expectations. In my initial year at San Francisco, our starting quarterback, Steve DeBerg, was outstanding in many areas. The category that he came up short in, however, was critical—throwing interceptions at important junctures. It cost him his job because it was right there on paper, a quantifiable statistic that verified what I already knew. In a very easily seen way, he could be shown where he was underperforming.
    8. It is critical that employee expectation levels be reasonable, attainable, and high.While you should exhibit flexibility in the work environment to accommodate the needs of employees, you should be inflexible with regard to your expectations of their performance.
    9. Establish a protocol for how members of the organization interact with one another. This is essential to preventing compartmentalization and “turf protection.” Let them know their first priority is to do their job; their second priority is to facilitate others in doing their jobs. 
  • My stated philosophy as head coach was that the person in our organization best suited for a specific job should be the person heading it up or doing it. The best play caller should be calling plays, the best offensive coordinator should be coordinating the offense, and so on. That was my theory, but not my practice. Somehow in my mind I believed that I was the best qualified to do almost every job, especially when it came to the offensive part of our game. In one sense, it stemmed from confidence; I was absolutely sure that if I did the job it would not get screwed up. Well, that can only take you so far. Pretty soon you’re on overload while very talented people in the organization are being underutilized. For example, Mike Holmgren, a superb assistant coach who eventually won a Super Bowl while head coach of the Green Bay Packers, was on my staff and could have taken on much more responsibility than I gave him. (The year immediately following my retirement, the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIV against the Denver Broncos 55-10, an all-time scoring record. Mike was calling the plays.) There were others, too, on my staff who were able and willing to take on more responsibilities. Theywere willing; I was reluctant, even unwilling—unable is perhaps more accurate. Of the various failures I cite myself for, one of the most problematic may have been my inability to delegate to the extent I could, and should, have. Increasingly, I continued to take on massive responsibilities. I appeared to be in full control—and I think I was—but the exhaustion I experienced, the track I was on, offered no escape. I couldn’t take a real vacation because there was always more and more to do, and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that Bill Walsh was the one best able to handle too many of the various responsibilities. Well, that kind of thinking can only take you so far. Eventually, you’re working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day with little good sleep, eating poorly, and dealing with all kinds of forces. You burn your energy like an acetylene torch until your nerves are completely stretched and then virtually destroyed. It took me years to figure this out, to learn it, to understand it. By then I was no longer head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

  • “Pick-a-Seat Day” was a total flop, but it was a flop that taught me something very important: A pretty package can’t sell a poor product. Results—in my profession, winning football games—are the ultimate promotional tool. I was trying to sell a bad product, a team that was the worst franchise in sports, that had lost twenty-seven straight road games, and whose record at home wasn’t much better. From that point on, I focused my energies exclusively on creating a quality product, a team that was worth spending money to see.

  • When that was achieved, we also achieved a ten-year waiting list to buy a 49ers’ season ticket. In your efforts to create interest in your own product, don’t get carried away with premature promotion— creating a pretty package with hype, spin, and all the rest. First, make sure you’ve got something of quality to promote. Then worry about how you’re going to wrap it in an attractive package. The world’s best promotional tool is a good product.

  • For me, the San Francisco 49ers increasingly became who “Bill Walsh” was on the inside. Any mistake or loss becameme. Any setback—big or small—reflected back on me, and I personalized it. If Jerry Rice dropped a pass, I dropped it; if a play didn’t work, it was my fault, instead of the fault of the assistant coach who called it or the opposing defensive player who made an outstanding stop; if Steve Young or Joe Montana threw an interception, it was my poor pass. This is a dangerous way to run your professional life because it seeps into and contaminates your private life. Eventually, it led me to make some horrible choices in my personal behavior that I deeply regret and am embarrassed by—even ashamed of. Ultimately, because failure had been personalized to such a degree, I was tormented by the very thought of errors of execution, mistakes, or loss. Winning, winning, winning—perfection—was the only solution. Except it was no solution—even winning a Super Bowl couldn’t remove the knowledge that failure was in the future, because nobody wins all the time.

  • Eddie’s background in football, his knowledge of football, was limited, but he felt peer pressure from his friends when we lost, and he occasionally reacted in an uncontrolled manner, usually after overindulging. When people are frustrated, they look outside themselves for someone to blame; it was someone else causing his problem, others are making bad decisions, not him. “I’m being criticized unfairly,” Eddie may have thought. It’s human nature when your deep emotions are involved in something that you lash out at anything or try to reach in and fix it even if you don’t know what’s going on. Looking back, it was something I should not have allowed. I let him haul me over the coals in regard to my effort or performance when he had no basis for doing it. His only basis was that he owned the team, a pretty good basis, but not enough for me to let him excoriate me without significant cause in front of the team even once. I regret that I didn’t back him down. Or leave. Ironically, it was part of the reason I left, for good. By then I had lost my taste for the job. I’m not sure I ever got it back, and in some way Eddie was part of the reason. I let him set a preposterous standard and then humiliate me when I couldn’t reach it. Looking back on it, I concluded that there are times when you must stand up for yourself even if the consequences include being fired. That’s easier said than done, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t do it. For Eddie—and I admit, for me too—eventually only a Super Bowl championship was acceptable; anything less was failure and cause for disgust and dismissal. (George Seifert, my immediate and able successor as 49er head coach, won two Super Bowls in eight years and was fired two seasons after the second championship in spite of having the highest winning percentage of any coach in NFL history: .766 with a 98-30-1 record. Eddie wanted a Super Bowl. Every year.) All of the above, in a nutshell, contributed to why I had to retire. The pursuit of the prize had become an exercise in avoiding pain; the expectations had become unattainable; the behavior of our owner had become—on occasion—unacceptable; and the responsibilities I took on, coupled with the pressure I put on myself, were unmanageable. Or so it seemed.

  • Let me share some thoughts on avoiding the trap I fell into, some ideas on how to deal with escalating expectations that become preposterous, personalization of results, and “zero points for winning.” I must admit that I’m not sure any of this would have benefitted me by the time I reached the end of my rope. The time to do it is before your tank is empty.
    1. Do not isolate yourself.While your spouse and family can be extremely important for support, they may not be equipped to deal with the magnitude of your professional issues in this area. Thus, develop a small, trusted network of people whose opinions you respect and are willing to honestly evaluate. My own make-up resisted this. As I marched forward as head coach, I became isolated, increasingly separated, even lonely. Keep your lines of communication open with mentors and professionals in your business whom you trust, even a professional counselor. (I had one for a while.) They can help you restore perspective and help clarify and prioritize situations and responsibilities. Be very discreet about whom you confide in. Crying on somebody’s shoulder, if it’s the wrong “somebody,” can have negative repercussions.
    2. Delegate abundantly. If you’ve done your job in leadership, you’ve brought on board individuals who are very talented. Allow them to use their talent in ways that serve the team and lighten your load. If you’ve hired and taught them well, they will do their job. I confess it was hard for me to amply delegate, even though I was surrounded by exceptionally talented people. I hired them, added to their expertise, and then had trouble turning some of them—especially on the offensive side of the game—fully loose to do their jobs. I was like a man dying of thirst who was sitting on the edge of a mountain stream. I denied myself what was available.
    3. Avoid the destructive temptation to define yourself as a person by the won-lost record, the “score,” however you define it.Don’t equate your team’s “won-lost record” with your self worth.
    4. Shake it off. Marv Levy lost four straight Super Bowls as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and was able to keep it in perspective: “It hurts like the devil for ten days or two weeks and then you bury it and go back to work and look ahead.” Bud Grant lost four Super Bowls as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and was able to keep it in perspective: “I’ve got a 24-hour rule. You only let it bother you for 24 hours and then it’s over.”
  • 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, but from a series of months and years until your organization knows what you are teaching inside and out and everyone is able to execute their responsibilities in all ways at the highest level.

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