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Walsh offers advice on effective leadership

Known for masterful leadership on fields of play, Bill Walsh shared tactics with a group of about 60 Stanford mid-level managers during an informal speech Monday, March 23.

The head football coach's common-sense management tips were interspersed with amusing anecdotes during the afternoon program of a conference for current and former Management Development Program members.

Walsh said that to be an effective leader, people must:

  • Be very competent in their work to inspire confidence.
  • Be hands-on and visible to colleagues.
  • Do away with the formalities; lower the ego.
  • Expect and demand participation.
  • Develop a standard of performance.
  • Plan well but always draw up contingency plans.

The first point may be painfully obvious but is worth mentioning, Walsh noted.

"A leader is a person who is very competent," Walsh said. "I have yet to see persons who can sustain themselves over a period of time in a leadership role who didn't know what they were doing."

In the workplace or on the gridiron, Walsh said, "rarely is a person going to be inspired by some high- sounding motivational speech - it is primarily related to competence.

"When they know that you can do your job, that sets an example," he said.

Being accessible and hands-on also is crucial, the coach said.

"That person who finally takes a position of responsibility that they have been seeking for some time could very well sequester themselves in their office and send memos out under the door," Walsh said. "Anyone that isolates themselves in a leadership role from those that are carrying out the operation itself are slowly but surely becoming symbolic or ceremonial leaders."

The manager or supervisor who does that, he said, "is thriving on a leadership job but not thriving on getting things done."

On the subject of formality, Walsh said, people in the workplace must be made to feel "comfortable and confident as they go about their daily tasks," so useless formalities and fancy titles should be discarded in favor of a first-name basis.

Leadership, Walsh continued, is "developing participation" among the entire staff.

"It's not high-sounding rhetoric," he said. "It's not one simple conversation between you and an employee, or you and a group of employees; (that's) not going to get the job done. It has to continuously evolve."

When things go wrong, Walsh said, ineffective managers might attempt to deflect blame, saying "I told this person to do that" or making other excuses.

"What you really should have been doing was conditioning that person to (perform) over a period of time," Walsh said. Managers need to "condition people to develop the right atmosphere (instead of) lecturing them to develop the right atmosphere.

When conditioned to perform at the expected level, Walsh said, "you don't concern yourself with competition; you concern yourself with how you perform. In football, that is done through practice.

"A leader is someone who establishes a standard of performance," he said. That person "demands and expects" participation and input.

"If you're willing to do that, to lower your ego to a point that you will accept ideas, then I think you'll get people working together."

Finally, he said, an effective leader must be prepared for the unexpected and have the ability to re- evaluate a situation.

"I've seen a lot of material on leadership, but not much on miscalculation and contingency plans," Walsh said. "Most leaders, I'm afraid, are fearful of admitting that, 'If this doesn't work, here's what we'll do.' Truly great leaders . . . say, 'Here's the plan, but if this goes wrong, here's what we'll do; and if that goes wrong, here's what we'll do.' "

The conference was arranged to give Stanford middle managers the opportunity to discuss issues and concerns of importance to them, as well as to help address challenges posed by the current period of administrative "repositioning."

Walsh's appearance was expected to be his last at a campus conference until after the upcoming football season is over, organizers of the event said.

Walsh earlier this year returned to Stanford for a second round coaching the Cardinal. After two successful seasons at Stanford, 1977-78, Walsh was named head coach with the San Francisco 49ers and took them from the NFL cellar to the top, winning three Super Bowls along the way. He then spent several years as a football analyst for NBC-TV before succeeding Denny Green back on the Farm.


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