Learn Five Leadership Lessons from an NFL Legend

Jeff Graham

When Bill Walsh took over the NFL Head Coaching role in San Francisco, the 49ers were described in the media as “Moribund.” This word means “in terminal decline" or to be “at the point of death.”

If your doctor ever describes you as Moribund, it’s time to get your affairs in order.

Walsh took the Niners from the point of death in 1979 to Super Bowl Champions in 1982, marking one of the most remarkable turnarounds ever in professional sports. He went on to win three Super Bowls with the 49ers, and had no fewer than 24 of his assistant coaches go on to be NFL head coaches themselves.

In short, Bill Walsh is a legend, and even if you’re not a football fan, his book “The Score Takes Care of Itself” is a fantastic contribution to the business and leadership genre.

Here are Five Leadership Lessons from the book that I found helpful:

    1. Don’t focus on the goal, focus on the process. Walsh didn’t have a timeline for winning his first Super Bowl. All he cared about was that everyone in the organization held to his now famous “Standard of Performance” in which he would lay out, in great detail, exactly what he expected of them. This focus on process led to rapid success, even though the focus wasn’t on being immediately successful.
    2. Innovation is often derived from necessity. The origins of the NFL’s most dominant football offence had its origins in a Quarterback with a weak arm. Walsh designed the now famous West Coast Offence while he was Offensive Coordinator in Cincinnati, where he had Virgil Carter as his Quarterback. Carter had poor arm strength, but was accurate and very intelligent. Walsh designed an offence that featured short, precise passes that required quick decision making from the Quarterback.
    3. You have to have a hard edge. Walsh had the nickname of “The Genius.” He taught at Stanford, looked very unemotional during games, and was renowned for his depth of knowledge in every area of football. He was also capable of yelling when necessary, firing employees or releasing players on the spot, and made everyone on the team sign a poster that said “I will not be out hit this season.”
    4. The score takes care of itself. According to Walsh, if you are sufficiently prepared, you will win at whatever you endeavour. The only reason you lose, at anything, is because you’re not prepared for the challenge. His whole coaching, leadership and business philosophy was based on this idea.
    5. Stick to your great idea. Bill Walsh’s ideas on how to play football were radically different than the competition. When others were running, Walsh was passing. When others focused on brute force, Walsh focused on intelligence and precision. A lot of people tried to convince Walsh his ideas about football were flawed, and he himself almost quit as head coach a mere 18 months before winning his first Super Bowl.

The Score Takes Care of Itself would make a great read if you’re looking to learn from a truly innovative leader. It would also make excellent material for a football fan looking for a great book during the NFL playoffs.