Do You have what it Takes to Lead People? Lessons I learned from Bill Walsh

“I was so distraught that I broke down and started crying.” Bill Walsh

I was fortunate, in the 1990’s, to take a continuing education class on leadership at Stanford University. The class featured 10 speakers including Stanford’s provost and Stanford’s head football coach.

The provost was future United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the head football coach was former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh.

Yes, it was a very cool class for the 20 of us lucky enough to get in.

A different speaker gave a talk each week with Rice and Walsh being the last two speakers. Walsh was scheduled to speak last – Stanford knew who the marquee coach, er, player was.

I cannot remember anything Rice said, but I vividly remember Bill Walsh’s talk.

Now: full disclosure. Living in the Bay Area, you would think I would be a big San Francisco 49er. I am not. I grew up in Chicago, and my loyalty is to the Chicago Bears. That didn’t stop me from wanting to listen to “The Genius” speak.

I was really excited to hear Walsh speak, and he did not disappoint. He was full of surprises:

  • His passion. Walsh’s reputation was that he very cerebral, so I was not expecting a passionate, fire and brimstone talk. Walsh started out very calm, and then he got more and more fired up as his talk progressed. He immediately gripped us with his belief. All of us in the room knew this was a key to his success.
  • Results are a lagging indicator of success. Walsh told a great story about his second season as the 49ers head coach. The team he inherited in 1979 was horrible. The 49ers were a woeful 2 wins and 14 losses in 1978, and in 1979, Walsh’s first year as coach, they went 2-14 again.

The 1980 49ers started out strong winning their first three games. Then, they proceeded to lose their next eight. Walsh talked about flying home from a particularly painful loss. I still remember his words: “I knew we were making progress. We were playing better, and we were competitive, but we weren’t winning. I was so distraught that I broke down and started crying.

Wow! I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect to hear that…from him!

The 1981 49ers, by the way, went on to win the first of three Super Bowls under Walsh’s leadership.

His closing remarks were fantastic. It was all about the pain you need to experience when you lead people. One line has stayed with me: “When you wake up at 3AM in a cold sweat worrying about what could go wrong, that’s leadership.

I’ve experienced the 3AM cold sweat Walsh is referring to many, many times. That’s the price of being a leader.

What can you learn from Bill Walsh?

Bill Walsh was known as a tactical and strategic genius, and he was. I would argue that Bill Walsh had another facet to his genius: the ability to bare his soul.

Do I really need to be that vulnerable to lead people?

I can only tell you what has worked for me. Being willing to bare my soul – or, as I wrote in a previous post, being real– is why people follow me. Believe Bill Walsh if you don’t believe me.

Don’t you think Walsh’s players saw or heard about his breakdown on the flight home?

Don’t you think Walsh’s players knew he would wake up at 3AM in a cold sweat?

Of course they did.

That’s why Walsh’s players followed him to three world championships.

That’s all for now,


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