How Coach Bill Walsh Was a Model Manager

February 11, 2022 / by Kathryn Redman

When Michael and I got married, we made a deal: I had to learn to like the drums, so that I could fully appreciate my husband’s percussive skills, and Michael had to learn to like football—specifically, the NFL. I fell in love with the NFL long before I fell in
love with Michael. I’m a 49ers fan first but root for Green Bay on the back end.

Michael thinks I got the easier part of the deal. Drumming seasons come and go, but the NFL is relentless.

One of the great stories of the NFL—especially for 49ers fans—is a story about how Coach Bill Walsh turned the struggling 49ers around with his leadership and management during the late ’70s and ’80s. Humor me for a second—I just have to geek out a little.

Bill Walsh took over the 49ers in 1979, after a brutal season when the franchise had only won two out of sixteen games. During Walsh’s first season, the 49ers once again went two and fourteen. As far as most people could see, Walsh wasn’t off to a great start.

The team’s 1980 season began so badly, Walsh didn’t think he’d survive it: they lost every one of their first five games. Walsh reported later in a memoir that he was sure he was going to get fired. He’d wanted to be an NFL coach for his entire life, but
the fall of 1980 made him think it was about to be over in a blink of an eye. Things were bad.

But then, the team started to pick up their game. The 49ers ended their 1980 year with a six and ten record—a slight, but noticeable improvement from their last two seasons, and enough to provide Walsh with a bit of job security.

In 1981, after two failing seasons under Walsh’s leadership, the team showed dramatic improvement, ending thirteen and three. Their transformation was so jaw-dropping, in fact, that Walsh was named the 1981 NFL Coach of the Year.

The Moment

In 1982, Walsh’s team ended up taking on the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, a franchise that had dominated the NFC East for over a decade, winning seven division championships and appearing in five Super Bowls in the 1970s alone.

In a famous moment at the end of a playoff game, with less than a minute on the clock, the 49ers’ wide receiver, Dwight Clark, made a leaping grab in the end zone to catch a game-winning touchdown pass from his quarterback, Joe Montana.

This moment became famous in NFL history, known simply as The Catch. It trans-
formed the 49ers from a losing team into a dynasty. They went on to win the 1982 Super Bowl and became known as one of the NFL’s most formidable forces.

By the end of Walsh’s tenure with the 49ers, they had won six division titles, three NFC Championships, and three Super Bowls. In 1993, Walsh was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It took time for Walsh to turn the ship around—but those initial losing seasons weren’t wasted. Walsh spent that time building a foundation that would later enable the team to succeed as dramatically as it did. So how did he do it?

Bill Walsh’s amazing leadership and management was all built on the premise that the team needed to work together as a community.

He worked to manage the culture of the 49ers, bringing them into a team mentality even as he juggled management of the day-to-day pieces that supported his players’ individual

He became famous for that community mindset. Before Walsh took over, many teams operated with the assumption that a team’s effectiveness was due to the individual competency of its players—but Walsh focused more on community competency. Through helping his players put aside their egos and participate in
a community identity, the power of their playing was transformed.

A Model Manager

We love Bill Walsh’s example of management because he succeeded in pushing forward a transformative Vision, even while he continued getting the day-to-day stuff done.

In a Passion & Provision company, management and operations work to
effectively handle the daily tasks of business in a way that moves your whole franchise toward the high horizon Vision. It’s community oriented, even while it prioritizes efficiency and achievement.

Like Walsh experienced, it takes time to transform your business into a Passion & Provision model—to solve, adjust, and grow the identity of your business into something new. The bigger your company, the more time it will take. Small companies can shift more quickly, but if you’re leading a large company, it’s going to feel more like turning an aircraft carrier in the ocean. You might need three to five years to change your culture on every level, until you’re on your new desired course with everyone’s buy-in.

Still, there are strategies and fundamentals you can put in place immediately to set your people up to succeed. And we give you the roadmap in our bestselling business book, "Fulfilled: The Passion & Provision Strategy for Building a Business with Profit, Purpose & Legacy." If you're at all interested, check it out by clicking below!

A room of people learning from an instructor with a Fulfilled CTA

Book reference: Ranadive, Ameet. “3 Leadership Lessons from Bill Walsh (Former 49ers Coach).” Medium. Great Business Stories, September 29, 2016.

Topics: Leadership, Management

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