3 Leadership Lessons from Bill Walsh (former 49ers Coach)

Ameet Ranadive
Jul 9, 2016 · 8 min read

I just finished reading “The Score Takes Care of Itself,” a leadership book by the great football coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers. Walsh led his team to 5 Super Bowl championships in 14 years, one of the greatest achievements in sports history. What made this achievement even more remarkable is that Walsh inherited a dysfunctional 49er team and organization that had gone 2–14 in the season prior to Walsh’s arrival. He immediately began rebuilding the 49er team culture and started applying his philosophy of leadership. Within 18 months of his 2–14 first season as 49ers head coach, Walsh led his team to win its first Super Bowl. And then he proceeded to lead the team to win another 4 Super Bowls in the next 14 years. How did he do it?

Walsh discusses several principles of leadership in his book, but here are 3 principles that resonated the most with me:

  • Expect defeats, but “stand up and fight again.”
  • Focus on continuous improvement, not victory.
  • Prepare, perform consistently, own the details.

Expect defeats, but “stand up and fight again.”

Bill wrote that “To succeed, you must fail.” He said that failure is “part and parcel of pursuing and achieving very ambitious goals” and that victory is “fleeting and elusive, not something you can summon at will even under the best circumstances.”

It’s how you handle the inevitable setbacks, the losses, and the failures that will determine your ultimate success. As difficult as it may be, it’s very important to dust yourself off and keep pushing yourself to “stand up and fight again.”

Bill told the story of how his team faced a critical game against the Miami Dolphins midway through his second season as head coach of the 49ers. The team’s season was imploding — they were coming off of seven consecutive losses, the media was bashing Walsh and the team’s performance, and Walsh believed that another loss could be the final nail in his coffin as the head coach.

The Miami Dolphins held on to their 17–13 lead as the final seconds on the clock went down. As Bill describes it, the loss was “a horrible and numbing defeat, overwhelming for me because of its potential impact — a job I had worked for my entire adult life was in jeopardy.”

On the flight home after the game, Bill “broke down sobbing in the darkness.” At that moment, he considered giving up and submitting his resignation. But something inside him told him: “I must stand and fight again, stand and fight or it was all over. And that was the instinct that slowly prevailed as we headed home in the middle of a very dark night.”

By the time they landed in SF, Bill “had pulled myself out of the hopelessness and begun working on the strategy we would employ against the Giants when they arrived in a week. I was wobbly but back up on my feet again.”

Instead of giving up, Walsh found something within himself to keep fighting. The team went on to win their next 3 consecutive games and rebuilt some momentum coming out of the season. The next season they went on to win the Super Bowl.

Walsh’s story reminds me of what I posted in “How to Be More Resilient” — namely, that pessimistic people think of setbacks as permanent, universal, and internal; whereas optimistic people see setbacks as temporary, specific, and external. Walsh was able to see the situation as temporary, specific, and external — and found the will to stand up and fight again.

Focus on continuous improvement, not victory.

Walsh wrote that in his mind, when he took over as head coach, “the prime directive was not victory.” This was unusual, because in most sports teams (as well as in business), there is an intense focus on winning. Walsh instead focused on developing skills, building a strong culture, and steadily improving team performance. He wrote in detail about this below:

“I had no grandiose plan or timetable for winning a championship, but rather a comprehensive standard and plan for installing a level of proficiency — competency — at which our production level would become higher in all areas, both on and off the field, than that of our opponents. Beyond that, I had faith that the score would take care of itself.”

“Consequently, the score wasn’t the crushing issue that overrode everything else; the record didn’t mean as much as the season progressed, because we were immersed in building the inventory of skills, both attitudinal and physical, that would lead to improved execution. That was the key.”

Bill’s philosophy resonated with me, and reminded me of one of my take-aways from “Fixed v Growth Mindset”: people with a growth mindset focus on working hard, applying themselves, and improving their performance; they don’t focus on the outcome (or the score). As I wrote:

Those with a growth mindset believe… you have to work hard in order to achieve success, that it doesn’t just come naturally. They love what they’re doing, regardless of the outcome. For growth mindset-oriented folks, their work is meaningful because they’re applying themselves, giving their best, solving challenging and important problems. It’s about the journey, not just the destination. As a result, even if the outcome is not a “success,” they feel the effort was rewarding and worthwhile in itself. People with the growth mindset stretch themselves more, think bigger, take more risks, and learn something new, regardless of the outcome.

As Jackie Joyner-Kersee (winner of 6 Olympic medals) said:

“For me the joy of athletics has never resided in winning… I derive as much happiness from the process as from the results. I don’t mind losing as long as I see improvement or I feel I’ve done as well as I possible could. If I lose, I just go back to the track and work some more.”

Bill Walsh applied the growth mindset when he urged his team to focus on building skills, improving execution, and increasing proficiency — rather than focusing on the score or on victory.

Work hard, perform consistently, master the details

Walsh had a growth mindset in other ways. He was not a believer in “natural talent” or “easy success.” He believed it was important to work hard, prepare for high-stakes situations and decisions, perform consistently, and master the details.

Walsh established a “Standard of Performance” that he expected from his team. As noted above, he was less concerned with victory, and more concerned with whether his team was consistently achieving the Standard of Performance. His belief was that if the team achieved the Standard of Performance, and did it better than their opponents, then the score would take care of itself.

How did he establish the Standard of Performance? It starts with “identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.” Walsh analyzed his team’s performance and had an excellent understanding of the actions and behaviors that drove outcomes. Once he knew what those key actions were, he drilled his team to continue improving their performance in those areas until they became (near) perfect. And as the team came closer and closer to achieving the Standard of Performance, they began to play better and win games.

In order to truly achieve outstanding performance, Walsh believed that you had to master the details. Here’s what he wrote on the topic:

In many ways, it comes down to details. The intense focus on those pertinent details cements the foundation that establishes excellence in performance. [For example], running exactly ten yards and not ten yards fifteen inches.

Organizational excellence evolves from the perfection of details relevant to performance and production… High performance is achieved small step by small step through painstaking dedication to pertinent details.

So how do you master the details? In Walsh’s view, it’s a matter of hard work, preparation, and practice. He describes how Jerry Rice and Joe Montana worked extremely hard to master their jobs.

If you’re Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history and, according to some, the greatest player, you’re practicing a slant pass pattern at 6 A.M. over and over with nobody within a mile of you — no football, no quarterback, nobody but Jerry working to improve, to master his profession. Why is the NFL’s greatest-ever receiver doing this? Jerry Rice understands the connection between preparation and performance; between intelligently applied hard work and results; between mediocrity and mastery of your job. And Jerry has the skill coupled with the will to do it.

Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history… would spend two hours a day every day at the same little practice field at Menlo College near San Francisco. I would work with him on basic fundamentals that would bore a high schooler to death. Joe Montana understands what mastery means. You never stop learning, perfecting, refining — molding your skills. You never stop depending on the fundamentals — sustaining, maintaining, and improving.

Jerry and Joe, maybe the best ever at their positions, at the last stages of their careers were still working very hard on the fundamental things that high school kids won’t do because it’s too damn dull. It wasn’t dull to Jerry and Joe, because they understood the absolute and direct connection between intelligently directed hard work and achieving your potential. We all do; you do; I do.

The “big plays” in business — or professional football — don’t just suddenly occur out of thin air. They result from very hard work and painstaking attention over the years to all of the details related to your leadership.

So what did we learn from Bill Walsh, who turned around a dysfunctional 49ers team and organization and led them to 5 Super Bowl victories in 14 seasons?

I learned three very important leadership lessons:

  1. Expect defeats, but be resilient. When you’re doing something hard, new, and competitive, you will suffer defeats and setbacks. If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risks or solving hard enough problems. It’s all about how you respond to these defeats. Be optimistic and resilient. “Stand up and fight again.” This behavior will inspire your team to keep pushing through the difficult setbacks.
  2. Don’t focus on the outcome. Focus on continuous improvement. First you should identify the key actions, attitudes, and behaviors that will deliver superior performance. Then you work to improve those actions and attitudes. If you continuously improve your skills and execution, “the score will take care of itself.” By getting your team to focus on skill improvement, they build the long-term capabilities to win consistently.
  3. Work hard, perform consistently, and master the details. In order to achieve your Standard of Performance, you and your team must be willing to work extremely hard. By continuing to practice and prepare until you master the details, you will achieve exceptional performance.

These lessons, though derived from sports, have application in business as well. In business, you will inevitably face defeats and setbacks. You will be tempted to focus on outcomes, but instead you should focus your team on the improvement of their knowledge and skills. And finally, you should understand the drivers of business performance at a detailed level. These drivers could be writing exceptional code, doing exceptional analysis, or making exceptional sales presentations. By working hard, and continuously analyzing and improving its performance at the detailed level, your team will see its execution begin to improve. And with consistent practice, your team will master the details necessary to achieve its goals.

Great Business Stories

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Ameet Ranadive

Written by

Entrepreneur. Product management @ Instagram.

Great Business Stories

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