“But here’s the lesson I learned….”
Note: I remembered this book when I recently began work on material for a workshop on accelerated development of middle managers and re-read it, curious to know how well the material has held up since initial publication. It has held up very well indeed.
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Whenever a list of the NFL’s greatest coaches is formulated, Bill Walsh’s name is usually included with those of other Hall of Famers such as Paul Brown, George Hallas, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, and Don Shula. I was especially eager to read this book, written with Steve Jamison and his only surviving son, Craig, because I wanted to gain a much better understanding of Bill Walsh’s leadership style and management preferences during an illustrious career as a head coach in the NFL: a record of 102-63-1 with the San Francisco 49ers, winning ten of his fourteen postseason games along with six division titles, three NFC Championship titles, and three Super Bowls. He was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984.
Especially in recent years, there have been many articles and books written about how to develop peak performers. (Some of the best observations and insights are provided by Erika Andersen in her book, Growing Great Employees.) The most highly-admired CEOs tend be those who were especially effective developing high-impact leaders among those in middle management. At GE, Jack Welch devoted at least 20% of his time to mentoring high-potential middle managers and his successor, Jeff Immelt, continues to do so. Given that, now consider the fact that a total of 24 head coaches in the NFL were once an assistant coach on his staff at one time, and many of them led teams to victory in the Super Bowl (e.g. Brian Billick, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Mike Shanahan). Some of Walsh’s greatest skills were those of a teacher. Many who recalled their association with him after his death (from leukemia in 2007) made it a point to praise his intellect, energy, scope and depth of knowledge, enthusiasm, insatiable curiosity, and especially his passion to help others to understand what great success required and how to achieve it.
In the introductory essay, “A Leader’s Book for Leaders,” Craig Walsh identifies five “key” players in his father’s life: Joe Montana (the first quarterback he drafted who led the 49ers to all of their Super Bowl victories), John McVay (vice president and director of the 49ers’ operations while Walsh was head coach), Mike White (a long-time personal friend and a fellow assistant coach at U. Cal Berkeley), Bill McPherson (a defensive assistant coach while Walsh coached the 49ers), and Randy Cross (“a great offensive lineman [and a] member of the San Francisco 49ers for thirteen years including his first three, which were pre–Bill Walsh seasons”). All of them accepted an invitation to “contribute their analyses of the leadership philosophy of Bill Walsh and expand on the comprehensive lessons my father offers [in this book]…these five were asked and kindly accepted the invitation to more fully explain the `genius’ of Bill Walsh.” Their contributions are substantial. Nonetheless, this is still Bill Walsh’s book.
In the Foreword, “His Standard of Performance,” Montana praises Walsh’s ability “to teach people how to think and play at a different and much higher, and, at times, perfect level.” How? Three ways: sharing a tremendous knowledge of all aspects of the game, assembling a highly competent staff as well as coaches “who knew how to coach” and who complemented the intensive instruction that Walsh provided on and off the field, and finally, developing a hatred of mistakes. “He was extremely demanding without a lot of noise…great at making people great students” and “ran a pretty tight ship, but he knew when to let us. He didn’t beat up players mentally of physically.” On the contrary, he assembled teams whose players who had to be highly intelligent to understand the immensely complicated strategies and game plans for which Walsh was noted throughout his career. He may have been the most cerebral head coach in the league’s history. That said, Craig Walsh also reveals that his father “Dad was an outsider; he wanted to be an insider. What he found along the way professionally, starting in his days as an assistant coach, was an unwillingness by others to `let him in.’ He didn’t have the pedigree – an athletic résumé from a big-name school or assistant coaching credentials from a big college program.” Nonetheless, what he accomplished as a coach was eventually considered sufficient for election to the NFL Hall of Fame.
I was fascinated to learn that Twelve O’clock High was one of Walsh’s favorite films and that he identified with the lead character, General Frank Savage (portrayed brilliantly by Gregory Peck) who commanded the 918th Bomber group during World War II. “My father loved that movie because it told the story of what he did in football, and what happened to him as a result, in the context of something he loved – the military.”
The account of Walsh’s career in enlightening. There are important business lessons to be learned from his leadership and management during periods of failure as well as success. This is what his son means when referring to “his ferocious competitive instinct, and his singular brilliance as a strategist, organizer, and team builder,” who “produced historic results.” However, what I found riveting is the multi-dimensional portrait of a profoundly human Bill Walsh that emerges in the book, an “outsider” obsessed with “proving them all wrong.” He did that and, with what he so generously shares in this book, can continue to help others learn “how to be as great as they can be.”