Monday, 4 April 2016

Bill Walsh Lessons in Leadership Part Two: An example of what not to do

Whilst The Score Takes Care of Itself has some excellent insights for leaders, the Bill Walsh story is also a cautionary tale, for it highlights the pitfalls of "Hero Leadership".

Pitfall No.1:  Inability to Delegate
Bill Walsh had an excellent knowledge of his industry, he had served his apprenticeship with some of the best and had had opportunity to develop his leadership style as Head Coach at Stanford. He was a perfectionist and this was his fatal flaw. As Head Coach and General Manager he took overall control of the whole organisation both on and off the field. He knew everyone's job, he had defined everyone's job, he set the standards for everyone's job, and believed that he could do everyone's job better than them (which may have been true) but ultimately it led to him 'burning out'.
"Somehow in my mind I believed that I as 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 underultilized. 
There were others, too, on my staff who are able and willing to take on more responsibilities. They were willing; I was reluctant, even unwilling - unable is perhaps more accurate.
Well that kind of thinking can only take you so far. Eventually you are working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, with little good sleep, eating poorly, and dealing with all kind of forces."  (p.212-3)
Leaders need to look after themselves and one of the ways they can do this is by putting trust in the talented team that they have around them.. They need to use the capacity gained to take time away from the nitty gritty of work. to be able to reflect and to develop time on the ball (see blogpost).

Pitfall No.2: Perfectionism - knowing when to let things go
Bill Walsh strove for perfection - he loved what he calls the "puzzle of perfection". His analysis of the team's performance in when they beat Miami 38-16 to win their second Super Bowl (XIX) is a case in point (p.190-92): Walsh describes this as a "the closest I've ever come to coaching a perfect game", yet Walsh continues "two events marred it for me to this very day" and proceeds to deliver a detailed post-mortem on the two imperfect plays of the game.
Here lies the paradox that makes great leaders: leaders necessarily focus on things that go wrong because these are the areas for improvement; but the leaders who are able to sustain high levels of leadership need to learn when to let things go. Bill Walsh didn't and he allowed his perfectionism and attention detail to shift from being a creative to a destructive force.

Pitfall No.3:  Allowing Winning to become "Not-failing" - The Challenge of Sustained Success
No one expected the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl XVI, a year after they had had one of the worst records in the league. However, with success came raised expectations and this only increased further when the 49ers won Super Bowl XIX four years later. Fear of failure drove Walsh to the point where victory was not enough - it simply became a form of not-losing. Walsh's advice with the benefit of hindsight was:
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 "won-lost record" with your self-worth. (p.225-6)
Walsh cautions against a world where executives cannot celebrate success because they are immediately preparing to win the next battle.

Pitfall No.4: Not Managing Up" - Not managing Expectations
Part of Walsh's problem in his latter years is that he did not "manage up" well. He allowed the owner of the club to have unrealistic expectations and set unrealistic, and ultimately unachievable, targets (a Super Bowl every year).  This was a major contributory factor to his burn out and early retirement.

The section where Walsh talks about the relationship with his owner (p.220-21) chimed with me. Throughout my 14 years of school leadership in the UK the most debilitating part of the job was managing expectations of Governors. In particular, there was always a constituency on the Board who, within minutes of my announcing record results for the nth consecutive year, shifted from momentary praise to laying out their expectations for even better results the following year. 
Over the years, I have realized that an important part of the role of a leader is to manage the expectations of key stakeholders (particularly, parents and Governors), Most of all, I have come to understand that I have a responsibility both to the staff, to the senior team, to the organisation and to myself to protect ourselves from short-term demands from Governors. Burnt out school leaders and staff do not bring about sustained school improvement - School Board members around the world and the British Government take note.

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