Friday, 1 April 2016

Bill Walsh Lessons in Leadership Part One: An example of how to transform an organisation

Bill Walsh was the coach who turned around the San Francisco 49ers taking them from the bottom of the pile to being a team that won five Super Bowl titles in 15 years. His book The Score Takes Care of Itself - My Philosophy of Leadership is packed full of insights about how to lead and manage people and how to drive change in an organisation:
"Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business. You start first with a structural format and basic philosophy and then find the people who can implement it."  (Frontispiece)
There is not sufficient space here to do justice to all the many insights in contained in the book, so I will endeavour to give a flavour here.

Standard of Performance
At the heart of Bill Walsh's approach is the Standard of Performance - i.e. the high requirements that he had for actions and attitudes. These applied not only to the players but to every person within the organisation (he was both Head Coach and General Manager). Everyone knew how they contributed to the aim of the organisation and what what was expected of them. 
These are the characteristics of his personal Standard of Performance:
  1. Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement;
  2. Demonstrate respect for each person in the organisation and the work he or she does;
  3. Be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise;
  4. Be fair
  5. Demonstrate character;
  6. Honor the direct connection between details and improvement;
  7. Show self-control, especially where it counts most - under pressure;
  8. Demonstrate and prize loyalty;
  9. Use positive language and have a positive attitude;
  10. Take pride in my effort as entity separate from the result of that effort;
  11. Be willing to go the extra distance for the organisation;
  12. Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation;
  13. Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress);
  14. Seek poise in myself and those I lead;
  15. Put the team's welfare and priorities ahead of my own;
  16. Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; and
  17. Make sacrifice and commitment the organisation's trademark.

Bill Walsh was a man who liked lists ("Great organisation is the trademark of great organisations" p.85) and the book contains many useful lists of advice. Here's one for Leaders:

Be a Leader - Twelve Habits Plus One
  1. Be yourself
  2. Be committed to excellence
  3. Be positive
  4. Be prepared (Good luck is the product of good planning)
  5. Be detail-oriented (but don't bury yourself in the detail)
  6. Be organized
  7. Be accountable
  8. Be near-sighted and far-sighted (keep everything in perspective)
  9. Be fair
  10. Be firm
  11. Be flexible
  12. Believe in yourself
  13. Be a leader
"A self-sustaining winning organisation"
Walsh's leadership aim was to produce "a self-sustaining winning organisation" where "everyone is able to execute their responsibilities in all ways at the highest level" (p.229), even under extreme pressure. This was illustrated in the final play of the final game that Bill Walsh ever coached. In the Super Bowl XXIII,  San Francisco 49ers were trailing 13-16 when they got possession of the ball on their own 8 yard line with only 3:08 left on the clock. What followed became legendary in NFL history: The 92 yard "Drive" to win the Super Bowl with seconds to spare:

"The Drive" was in many ways a culmination of all that Bill Walsh stood for. It was the product of hours of training, preparation, excellent strategy and meticulous planning and, executed in the cauldron of the final seconds of a Super Bowl. San Francisco went on to win Super Bowl XXIV the following year - evidence, if any were needed, that Bill Walsh had indeed produced "a self-sustaining winning organisation".

This is a book that is already heavily annotated and one to which I know that I will return, time and time again. I cannot recommend it more highly.

There is a negative side to the Bill Walsh story, which I will discuss in Part Two of this review.

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