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The Bill Walsh Way

Steve Jamison
Steve Jamison is the co-author (with the late Bill Walsh) of "The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership" (Portfolio, August 2009).

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."

By Steve Jamison

 |  September 4, 2009; 11:05 AM ET |  Category:  Sports leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Bill Walsh---the ultimate in class and sportsmanship. The reasons he won were many and not just due to football knowledge. The redskins are the total opposite---run by greedy morons---they'll never win a title, mark it down!

Posted by: Socialistic | September 9, 2009 2:49 AM

I had just moved to San Francisco before the 1981-82 season. It was an amazing season. Walsh got the ultimate in revenge when his team beat Brown's team in the Super Bowl that year. Brown was no longer head coach but rather general manager, I believe, but the victory for Walsh couldn't have been sweeter.

I don't think there has ever been a better coach/quarterback combo in NFL history.

I watched the 49ers faithfully and enjoyed them immensely over the next 15 years. It was an experience that rivaled growing up with the Yankees circa 1954 to 1964.

Posted by: theduke89 | September 8, 2009 9:04 PM

I worked at a company in the semiconductor industry in Si valley which dealt with looking for defects on wafers (Si wafer inspection). I kid you not from day one I was treated with harsh contempt, despite having a PhD. Abusiveness, taunts, hysterics, accusations, negative politics, and personal comments were commonplace. This is what market driven corporate America is like - the abode of the immature who think money is the route to all ends. I left in utter disgust. One of the last comments I heard was "Your job is to make me look good." Judge for your self!

Posted by: kidkayt | September 8, 2009 8:21 PM

You know, I think Walsh was preaching to the choir when it comes to treating people right. One place that I worked at I and quite a few people came out on the short end of a management change. However, instead of just laying us off to make room for people who they wanted, they went out of their way to first "document" what they didn't like about us, fire us, and then put us on the "do not hire" list. After having such a treatment, I'm sure you can imagine that it is difficult to find employment.

From my perspective, if anyone from that management team or the company they came from ever tries to seek employment where I'm at, I'll nix them, and deservedly so. I have no desire to have someone on my team who treats people that unfairly.

It is interesting. When you've come out on the short end of the stick from someone you tend to treat people very fairly. You also tend to keep out those who would treat people unfairly.

Sounds like a good philosophy to me!

Posted by: A1965bigdog | September 8, 2009 5:43 PM

I haven't read the book, but I believe I'll be bumping it up on my list after reading this.

It sounds like it should be required reading for all MBA students and certainly for any big multi-national that has siphoned off Bailout money. The whole idea of treating employees as nothing more than tools has led to our completely dysfunctional corporate atmosphere. I wouldn't dream of putting up with nonsense at any large company to show "loyalty". It's because I know that I will be shown none to begin with. Thus I'm working for a smaller business and making them quite a bit of money with my expertise.

Posted by: theobserver4 | September 8, 2009 5:20 PM

I'm a Redskins fan that is no more; my friends and family cannot understand how my contempt for Snyder actually exceeds my love for the team; and how an owner can drive me away from a team that I rooted for so passionately. Until there is some class (or even just simple humna decency) in the Redskins organization, there are going to be more like me; who will be driven away not only by contempt, but also by poor showing on the field.

Posted by: nolngeraseasontixhder | September 8, 2009 2:58 PM

Why didn't this philosophy rub off on Vinnie Cerato? Daniel Snyder could sure use a double dose of "Treat People Right."
I am convinced the way the Redskins organization treats people, whether players or ticketholders, as numbers and not as fellow human beings...MARK MY WORDS...that Organization WILL NEVER win a Super Bowl with this cutthroat, Pirate, Sharks in the water mentality! It might look like the bad guys are winning...but in the long run, they bad guys ALWAYS LOSE! ALWAYS!

What happened to Bill Walsh by Paul Brown was terrible, unconsciousable? That's ruthless! The Bengals to this day have been the laughingstock of the NFL. Brown's son should acknowledge his father's transgressions and repent and maybe his franchise will rise from mediocrity. People don't believe in "What goes around comes around!" or "You reap what you sow" It is a spiritual principal established by the ALMIGHTY HIMSELF! There is no getting around it!

I have suffered personally in my career because I REFUSED to not bend to the status quo's wishes to treat people badly. I was raised by my parents to treat people right and I lived by that principal ALL of my life! It has worked for me EVERYTIME...and I have benefited from it when I needed grace from the HEAVENLY FATHER and mankind!

When any leader whether in the corporate world, government, schools, and at home...when leaders LOSE humanity and common decency for their fellowman and neighbor and countrymen. I.e. Love thy neighbor as thyself. You get a ruthless, cutthroat, vicious society! This explains why AIG, Merrill Lynch executives HAD no problems paying themselves bonuses when they were the SAME executives who drove those companies into the ground! Woe unto them!

Bill Walsh was truely a great man and human being because he treated his personnel and his players with dignity and honor and respect. A lot of people take kindness for weakness! In actuality kindness is an internal strength few people have TODAY!

This type of book should be a mandatory requirement at every business school for MBA's and every leadership training in the corporate world and government. Heck, college and professional sports need to REVISIT and RELEARN Sportsmanship...It must start in the little leagues, to high school to college to professional. Taunting opponents SHOULD NEVER BE TOLERATED!

Every member of Congress needs to be taught how to treat people right. So do the Executive and Judicial branch. This goes for the police departments too!

Our society HAS LOST its way! GOD help us!

Posted by: enochwalked | September 8, 2009 1:15 PM

Destroy everybody in your path to get down the field. That's business. There are always more people getting in the way.

Posted by: Dermitt | September 8, 2009 9:45 AM

The life and time of Bill Walsh showed, again, that it's "the best and the brightest" who are most fondly remembered after they've gone--to heaven, not to where Michael Vick will be re-assigned when his breathing ceases. In fact, very few Americans will remember Vick: the football-crazed U.S.-culture will remember Bill Walsh forever; that's the way it should be.

Posted by: marc85 | September 8, 2009 9:44 AM

Walsh has always been my hero, a great person and man. A very rare thing in sports, indeed. Paul Brown never learned his lesson with 'new thinking' coaches and although he wanted to keep Walsh as offensive coach, he didn't want that great mind in charge of his team. George Halas made the same mistake years earlier when he fought George Allen, in court, over his desire to move west and coach the Rams. After that, Halas couldn't get a decent coach to hire and the Bears went into the tank for 20 years. It's funny, but Halas was one of the people Brown gave bogus info to about Walsh when they were looking for a new coach. Instead, they went with choice 'B'.

Posted by: ideabook | September 8, 2009 9:18 AM

Why do many companies and organizations in general behave like 4-year olds who don't get their way? Because they can. It takes self-knowledge and discipline from the top to instill a positive, healthy culture.

Posted by: nvamikeyo | September 8, 2009 9:16 AM

Why do many coaches behave like 4-year-olds who don't get their way?

Posted by: EliPeyton | September 8, 2009 8:48 AM

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