The Bill Walsh Way
When Bill Walsh was hired as head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers it was indisputably the worst franchise in the NFL -- some analysts claimed the worst in all of sports. In the season before he took charge the team struggled to achieve a 2-14 record.
In this toxic and mutinous organizational culture, Bill Walsh would be their third new head coach in a year. Thirty-six months later, San Francisco won Super Bowl XVI. The white-haired, corporate-style leader had transformed the NFL doormat into an incipient dynasty that would ultimately win five Super Bowls.
So how did he do it?
Bill had extraordinary leadership assets: a brilliant mind; organizational mastery; a keen eye for talent (e.g., Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott); an astute understanding of the game's X's and O's; off-the-charts creativity (The West Coast Offense); and a poet's insights into human nature.
Bill shared his unique philosophy of leadership with me when we were working together on what turned out to be his final book, The Score Takes Care of Itself (Bill sadly passed away in 2007).
Great leadership, for him, started with a particular code of conduct. He told me, "I believe that an organization is not an inert tool like a shovel, but an organic entity that must have a code of conduct, a high standard of performance in actions and attitudes."
The Bill Walsh code of conduct -- those "standards" -- started with a simple mantra: "Treat people right." Even during his early desperate days at San Francisco, a first priority was that members of his organization, both those on and off the field, be treated fairly and with respect by ownership and management. (He also demanded that employees treat one another with respect; there was no caste system.)
Bill believed this was not only ethical, but that it offered a significant reward: "Highly qualified people, whether a superstar quarterback or a secretary, want to be part of an organization they feel will care about them and their interests, a team that will treat them right."
Walsh understood from personal experience what happens when such standards are ignored. He'd been the victim of what he considered unscrupulous treatment while working as an assistant for the Cincinnati Bengals under head coach Paul Brown, a football genius whose absolute commitment to his team's welfare was a virtual obsession, sometimes to his own detriment.
As Bill recalled, Brown had tacitly promised him the Bengals' head coaching position upon his retirement. Instead, Walsh was passed over for another assistant coach. Deeply dismayed, he began contacting other NFL teams for possible employment, ideally as a head coach, but if not, then as offensive coordinator.
In the following weeks he began hearing from owners and others that Paul Brown was giving him bad reviews in spite of his great success at Cincinnati -- dismissive of his potential as a head coach or even an offensive coordinator. At the same time Bill was being offered a generous raise and much greater responsibilities with the Bengals. Paul Brown seemed to be deliberately sabotaging the career aspirations and advancement of a loyal employee; Bill Walsh resigned immediately.
Soon after he accepted a job as quarterbacks coach with the San Diego Chargers under head coach Tommy Prothro. One year later Stanford University called to offer the job of head football coach, a position that led directly to being noticed and hired by San Francisco 49ers. Tommy Prothro had encouraged Bill to take the job.
Walsh never forgot the bitter lesson he learned while at Cincinnati, nor the positive one from Tommy Prothro. At San Francisco he put the welfare of the team first, but not at the expense of sabotaging an individual's personal or professional welfare. (When the New York Giants sought permission from Walsh to approach the 49ers outstanding defensive coach Ray Rhodes with a job offer even though he still had one year remaining on his contract, Walsh said yes.)
Bill's beliefs about treating people right could be summed up in the simple phrase, "What goes around comes around." In our discussions Bill said that as word of his treatment at Cincinnati got around the league, it hurt the Bengals. "How eager would you be to join an organization that might betray your loyalty?" he asked. He also knew from the phone calls he began receiving from players, agents, and assistant coaches that San Francisco had become a destination team, in part, because talented people throughout the NFL knew that Bill Walsh meant it when he said, "Treat people right."
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