Leadership and Management as Exemplified by Bill Walsh and the Forty-Niners

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Modern theory of management in business puts a great emphasis on leadership qualities. The idea of a visionary person leading a team, whether in sport, business, or in the field, has been popular in the western culture, which birthed the concept of “hero leadership,” where all the power was concentrated in the hands of an incredibly charismatic person (Alvarez et al., 2016). The American Football industry in the 1970s-1980s was dominated by such an approach, where coaches were seen as mini-dictators, whom everyone in the team obeyed (Rapaport, 1993). They alone carried the responsibility for successes or failures. This paradigm changed when Bill Walsh assumed control of Forty-Niners in 1979.

Never a charisma-based coach, but more of a manager and a SEO, Walsh managed to bring the team out of its notorious losing streak and towards victories and a firm stand within the National Football League (NFL) (Walsh et al., 2009). He implemented an innovative approach that promoted wholesale organizational change, focused on metrics and business objectives, and instilled a culture of winning within the club. The purpose of this paper is to explain Walsh’s approach as both a manager and a leader, identify his framework used in coaching San Francisco’s Forty-Niners, establish the differences between Walsh and the current coaches in the NFL, and highlight the four main approaches to managing organizational change.

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Bill Walsh as a Manager and a Leader

Bill Walsh, in his interviews, has demonstrated a focus on the managerial side of working with a team, rightly claiming that “historically in sports, there has been one central figure in the organization whose presence dominates everything and whose judgments people identify with” (Rapaport, 1993). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to classify Walsh as solely a manager. In his work with the Forty-Niners, he demonstrated the capacity to be both, providing both the necessary changes and innovations, while achieving organizational tasks and objectives placed before him by the club’s leadership.

As a manager, Walsh utilized the coaching management style while working with the organization (Walsh et al., 2009). This style focuses on the needs of players, including emotional, motivational, training, and development needs. This style was conducive to the overall objectives of the organization – to transform the players of the country’s worst football club at the moment by improving their individual skills as well as their ability to work together as a team (Vesso & Alas, 2016). This style was perfect for identifying player capabilities and focusing on them, weaving them into the new pattern created by him and his coaches for the team. As a result, the potential of both players and coaches under Walsh increased dramatically. This management style fits well with long-term sports projects, which are high-competition industries, where losing a player and hiring a new one is taxing on both finances and results, when compared to the perspective of growing and retaining old ones (Vesso & Alas, 2016).

As a leader, however, Walsh had to transform the defeatist mentality of the Forty-Niners, which were at the very bottom of the table for two consecutive seasons (Walsh et al., 2009). To do so, he applied a transformational leadership style, which is a style typically used to inspire and motivate employees to create change by making them grow both as people and as professionals, in order to achieve success (Alvarez et al., 2016). It focuses on individual independence, ownership of work processes, strong sense of corporate culture, and excellent performance at the executive level, in order to set an example for the others (Alvarez et al., 2016). Transformational leadership allows individuals to perform as mini-leaders in their own positions and helping them make decisions on their own, facilitating creativity (Kotter, 2007). All of these qualities, as practice showed, were invaluable when it came to team management and professional football.

Walsh’s Method for Success

As Walsh often mentioned, he did not have the macho attitude and charisma associated with professional football coaches all this time. Therefore, he had to earn respect and trust of the club members in other ways (Rapaport, 1993). He did so by showing himself to be a knowledgeable and professional coach, using the buy-in he got from working with Stanford, bringing a relatively mediocre team to national ranking within a year and winning the Bluebonnet Bowl in 1977 (Walsh et al., 2009). He had a radically different approach to both practical and organizational success, when compared to previous coaches that managed to ruin the Forty-Niners through a series of poor management and personnel decisions.

First, in accordance with the coaching management framework, he focused on long-term development of players and their individual performance (Vesso & Alas, 2016). Walsh recognized that the previous “one size fits all” approach was too blunt and did not work, causing player rotations, additional expenditures, and a general loss of morale (Walsh et al., 2009). Before Walsh, all who failed to adapt to the mold were expelled. Now, so long as there was the potential for development of unique skills, those skills were being developed, with the focus on the long-term (Rapaport, 1993). This was true for both players and coaches.

After changing the overarching focus of training to nurture individual qualities, Walsh sought to bring these individuals to form a highly-coordinated team effort. He recognized that football was a team effort (Walsh et al., 2009). Other teams retained a simplistic approach to strategy and relied on measurable individual performance indicators, such as strength, speed, maneuverability, number of passes and so forth. Walsh (2009) relied on complex and elaborate movements of the team, which often confused and befuddled their opponents, which were used to simple contests of ability between individual players.

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Such coordination of movement between individual team players was achieved through a change in training regimen and drilling. In his interviews, Walsh put an emphasis on keeping the player challenged both physically and intellectually every step of the way, in order to help them grow (Rapaport, 1993). This is another element of coaching management strategy – applying enough pressure to make people grow, but without creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust. This concept fits well with the transformational leadership paradigm as well, as it generated bonds of trust between players and the head coach, resulting in motivation through ambition and good will rather than fear.

Finally, the element of motivation Walsh tied to the players’ and coaches’ personal egos. He said that primary motivation to achieve must come from within – if the player has the ambition to become the best, he would put all the effort he can into doing so (Rapaport, 1993). In contrast, a player with low ambition, who is comfortable at his current place and his salary will never put the effort necessary to grow, as he achieved the limit of his perceived potential (Parcells, 2000). Thus, cultivating ambition and instilling the culture of winning was what transformed the team from what it was, to what it became.

Strategies for Transformation

When it came to achieving results, Walsh maintained an environmentalist view on organizational strategy, believing that the performance of players relies heavily not only on their individual capabilities, but also on the physical and emotional environment surrounding them (Walsh et al., 2009). As such, he implemented four core organizational strategies to change the situation. The first step was to create a strong working ethic and setting behavioral norms for individual players (Alvarez et al., 2016). When Walsh first started working with the club, he did not demand the players to win the season – that was not the objective. Instead, he demanded a change in attitude and a focus on training and self-improvement. Before a culture of winning became possible and actual wins came to Forty-Niners, the team focused greatly on self-improvement (Walsh et al., 2009).

The second step involved setting up standards of excellence. This approach went beyond the player locker room, and extended towards coaches, scouts, and support personnel (Rapaport, 1993). There were demands towards performance, appearance, and quality of service for everyone. At the same time, players and members were forced to treat each other and the fans with respect they deserved (Vesso & Alas, 2016). Walsh believed that acting like a professional would make a professional. Finally, the field on which the club practiced was heavily renovated to account for soggy weather of the region, which improved the quality of training and self-perception greatly (Walsh et al., 2009). To change the existing traditions, he applied Kurt Lewin’s change model, with good habits being adapted, bad ones – discarded, and the system refreezing into solid Standards of Practice once successes and payoff started coming in.

The third point was focusing on organizational objectives, and not on victory. According to Walsh (2009), if the players managed to achieve their own individual performance goals, victories were going to follow naturally. Performance determined victories; victories were not the measurement of performance. The team focused on developing physical and attitudinal skills that helped improve the overall results. It was a team effort too, as no player could achieve success on their own, without the assistance from other players in the team, who blocked the attackers, drove away others with decoy runs, and so forth (Rapaport, 1993). Doctors and coaches were also valued members of the team, helping achieve the physical and mental metrics without which successes would have been impossible.

Finally, Walsh utilized a strategy of building a stress-resilient organizational culture as a means of pushing the players beyond their limits. It came in connection with the expectation of high performance over victory (Vesso & Alas, 2016). Players were not pushed to excellency by fear of losing, but rather were motivated to better themselves through expectations, ambition, and a lack of pressure from the organization. They wanted to win, rather than did not want to lose (Vesso & Alas, 2016). As a result, the team under Walsh often managed to come back from games where they were many points behind, the greatest comeback happening when the team was losing with a score of 7 to 35, against New Orleans Saints.

Comparisons with Modern Coaches

Walsh is almost universally credited with transforming modern football in the US in the same way that William Beane transformed baseball by applying sabermetrics into his coaching and management style (Pitts & Evans, 2019). As a result of his successes with the Forty-Niners, other clubs started copying the manner in which he trained his team. Some of the most successful coaches in the industry, such as Bill Belicheck, Andy Reid, and Pete Carroll, all have implemented Walsh’s lessons in some way or measure.

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Belicheck’s coaching model is, perhaps, more advanced than Walsh’s was. It focuses both on the performance of his own team as well as on that of the opponent. He likes to cite Sun Tzu on this, saying that besides knowing oneself, the players had to know and understand the enemy (Pitts & Evans, 2019). Walsh’s philosophy, on the other hand, focused heavier on oneself than on the opponent.

Reid’s coaching style is more similar to that of Walsh, but also involves a greater hands-on approach. It is a mix between the charismatic style of leadership of the past with the results-focused management style of the present (Pitts & Evans, 2019). Being extremely knowledgeable in the individual parts of the game and the technical aspects of playing, Reid is more of a coach than Walsh, and earns the players respect through that.

Finally, Carroll’s primary coaching tenets are straight out of Walsh’s book. He seeks to increase competition, identify and maximize the individual talents of every player, and nurturing an environment that allows players to remain themselves while staying a part of the team (Pitts & Evans, 2019). Such an approach creates strong team cohesion that is difficult to beat.

It is possible for Walsh to be a successful coach in the NFL today, as the tenets he invented still hold true. However, the innovation he pioneered is now the status quo for many leading NFL clubs. The edge it has given him and the Forty-Niners during 10 years of his coaching is now gone, as the principles of it are widely known and implemented by others. Therefore, to achieve the same legendary results as before, Walsh would need to innovate the system once more.

Organizational and Coaching Suggestions

While Walsh announced that creativity and individuality played an important role in his organizational framework, the results of many of his games show a strict and rigid adherence to the already established tactics (Walsh et al., 2009). The drills he designed were meant to enable players to follow complex strategic patterns generated beforehand rather than in the field (Walsh et al., 2009). As a result, if the chosen stratagem was wrong – the team suffered in the field. It is the core reason behind so many matches where the Forty-Niners had to make a heroic comeback. While they did achieve victory in such situations with a surprising frequency, it is the lack of adaptivity that caused these near-defeat experiences in the first place. Instead of just training players to follow his plans, Walsh should have focused more on enabling players to generate ideas on the fly – which is what happened when they needed to pull of a last-minute win.

Finally, Walsh should have adopted a more active role as a leader and not just a manager. While his assertion that charismatic leadership was overblown is correct, disregarding the figure of the head coach in the overarching team mythos is not a good idea, due to the intrinsically war-like nature of the sport, which requires a leader figurehead to look up to (Vesso & Alas, 2016). Walsh managed to become such through results and not charisma, but the degree to which luck played a role in it is yet to be ascertained.

References

Álvarez, O., Castillo, I., Molina-García, V., & Balague, G. (2016). Transformational leadership on the athletic field: An international review. Revista de Psicología del Deporte, 25(2), 319-326.

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Kotter, J. P. (2007). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review. Web.

Parcells, B. (2000). The tough work of turning around a teamHarvard Business Review. Web. 

Pitts, J. D., & Evans, B. (2019). Manager impacts on worker performance in American football: Do offensive coordinators impact quarterback performance in the National Football League?. Managerial and Decision Economics, 40(1), 105-118.

Rapaport, R. (1993). To build a winning team: An interview with head coach Bill Walsh. Harvard Business Review. Web. 

Vesso, S., & Alas, R. (2016). Characteristics of a coaching culture in leadership style the leader’s impact on culture. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 14(2), 306-318.

Walsh, B., Jamison, S., & Walsh, C. (2009). The score takes care of itself: My philosophy of leadership. Penguin.

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BusinessEssay. "Leadership and Management as Exemplified by Bill Walsh and the Forty-Niners." January 3, 2022. https://business-essay.com/leadership-and-management-as-exemplified-by-bill-walsh-and-the-forty-niners/.