3 Key Management Lessons from an Award-Winning Football Coach

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Nuggets from Bill Walsh, one of the greatest football manager-coach of NFL history

It was 1977. A moderately talented Stanford football team got a new coach – Bill Walsh. The team was not performing well at the time and needed a new direction. And to provide that direction, in came Walsh. The team was not too sure about the decision though – Walsh had only served as an assistant coach to that date and he didn’t really look “macho”. They decided to wait and watch.

And what a surprise they were in for.

In 2 years, the Cardinals went on to win two bowl victories. 

The following year Walsh left Stanford for another prestigious opportunity – head coach of an NFL team. He took over the then-woeful San Francisco 49ers and created one of the greatest success stories in the history of professional sports. Under Walsh’s direction, the 49ers won three Super Bowl titles, made seven NFC postseason appearances, and claimed six NFC West Division Championships. 

If you’re wondering how this applies to a manager, bear with me. 

It matters because what he did back in the 1970s and 1980s might just about be the success recipe that all managers today are seeking. 

Hard Skills enable Soft Skills (and vice versa)

In a classic interview on how to create winning teams, Walsch spoke about some coach must-haves that stay true for a manager in today’s organization. He starts off by emphasizing a strong working knowledge of the game. The head coach must leverage the knowledge to function effectively and decisively in the most stressful situations.

Interestingly enough, while popular notion focusses only on the transferable leadership skills, this leadership skill has also been emphasized in the findings of Project Oxygen, path-breaking research conducted by Google in 2008 to identify behaviors that make managers great. When managers possess technical knowledge, it makes the employee’s life better as well. On a research study that measured “boss competence and worker wellbeing” (their words, not ours), having a highly competent boss has the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction. 

Managers who know the tricks of the trade are much more effective at communicating knowledge, thinking critically, and making decisions. We believe that a manager’s effectiveness increases when their leadership skills are developed and built on top of their hard skills.

Which brings us to the next important trait.

Psychological Safety – the deal breaker

For a team to succeed, Walsh believes that team members need to speak up. And that only happens when the coach lets go of the ego obstacle so that members can speak up without fear. They have to know that they will not be mocked if they turn out to be wrong or if their ideas are not directly in line with their superiors. That is where the breakthrough comes. That is what it takes to build a successful, winning organization.

Sports teams and professional teams are cut from the same cloth on this one. Psychological Safety – “the belief that one can speak up without the risk of punishment or humiliation” has been well established as a critical driver of high-quality decision-making and greater innovation. 

And a manager who can create an environment of psychological safety is one that gets Project Oxygen’s nod of approval. According to Google, one of the tenets of great managers is that they create an inclusive team environment, show concern for the success and wellbeing of the team. And it’s found to reap results. In a recent survey, Gallup found that moving the needle on psychological Safety can lead to a reduction in turnover (27%) and increases in productivity (12%). 

Creating a culture of psychological safety is a large goal that lends itself to managerial behaviors over a period of time. It’s one that needs sensitivity, productive responses to conflict and failure, and a high degree of trust and respect. Walsh believes it takes mastery in managing a team’s emotions to achieve this grand goal. Many football coaches, including Walsh, do whatever they can to soften the edges, to reduce the anguish and frustration, to communicate their own sensitivity while making tough decisions. They take a stance against being honest and direct. Calling out the damage done by “insensitive, hammer-like shots delivered in the name of honesty,” Walsh raises a good point – that people will lose the bonding factor they need for success. And over time, that directness will isolate coaches from their teams.

Empathy – the key to psychological Safety

Therefore, be it NFL coaches or corporate managers, empathy has become extremely important. A manager who is able to create a sense of belonging for the team is able to achieve far more than anyone who does not. Sathya Nadela, the CEO of Microsoft, stresses empathy as a must-have for a leader – he views it as a key source of business innovation since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.

Despite this importance, a Forbes study concluded that only “40% of frontline leaders” were “proficient or strong in empathy.” With all the research and efforts done on leadership development – it begs the question, why has it become challenging to move from theory to practice?

We empathize with managers on this one. The route from theory to practice, for any manager, is a challenging one. Managers want to create a conducive environment for their teams to succeed, but some miss the mark. Well-meaning managers who strive to build successful teams are often seen speaking to their managers higher up the chains seeking advice and feedback on team management. You’ll notice many managers in slack communities and conversations with other managers trading tales of hits and misses. 

How we truly learn

And this is where we believe the essence of learning lies—learning the way we as humans are designed to learn – through the experiences of others, from those who’ve been there and done that. The next time you find yourself signing up for yet-another leadership course online, just think about that 🙂

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