The “Bill Walsh Model” to Your Leadership Legacy

The “Bill Walsh Model” to Your Leadership Legacy

What is your leadership legacy? How will you define it? How can it have a long-lasting impact?

Many leaders think of their leadership legacy in terms of accomplishments. And, perhaps, how long these accomplishments are remembered or how long these accomplishments — in terms of process implementations or growth of an organization — exist. But is this the best way to determine legacy? Perhaps not. Instead, leaders ought to look at legacy in terms of how many people they develop into leaders or that those who they develop continue to develop others. Perhaps this is the true mark of leadership legacy.

If legacy is measured in terms of a leader’s ability to develop others, then the true mark of a great leader is how many other leaders they have developed. If we look at a CEO of an organization, can we count how many CEOs of other organizations this leader has developed? Or perhaps we should include other C-suite executives as their legacy. This is where the story of Bill Walsh is extra-ordinary. His leadership is measured not just on how many leaders he developed, but how many of those leaders developed others.

Bill Walsh, the long-time coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is generally considered one of the National Football League’s greatest coaches, and perhaps, the greatest of all time. But why is he regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time? Most casual observers would point to the number of games he won, Super Bowls he won or that he developed the West Coast offense. These are all excellent points, but none of them are especially dynamic. He won 92 games as coach of the San Francisco 49ers (102 games including play-offs). Currently, he is 45th all time in number of wins; although impressive, it is not an “all time great” number. In fact, he is 245 wins behind Don Shula (the winningest coach of all time). Furthermore, Walsh’s winning percentage is 19th, but several current coaches are ahead of him in this regard as well. Championships are important when measuring success (or course!). Walsh won three super bowls, but several coaches have won more, including Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and very few would argue that Noll is the greatest coach of all time. Walsh is also remembered for developing the West-Coast offense, which became en-vogue in the 1990s and 2000s, but currently, only six teams run variations of the West Coast offense. Again, this is very impressive, but it is not what makes Bill Walsh an “all time great.”

So, the questions still remains, why is Bill Walsh considered an (the?) all time great NFL coach? The cornerstone metric to his leadership legacy comes from his “coaching tree.” A coaching tree is a graph that presents all of the future coaches — and future generations of coaches — that one developed. Therefore, as the head coach, Bill Walsh was able to develop his assistant coaches into head coaches, and they in turn, were able to develop assistant coaches into head coaches. It is an excellent metric to measure the legacy impact that Walsh had on others. He likely developed more future head coaches than any other coach; especially, when we look back at the last 40 years. The reason he is an all time great, and that his legacy remains larger-than-life, is because he developed 31 head coaches (including those he developed, and who in turn, developed others). Thirty-one! Bill Walsh’s ability to develop leaders is truly amazing. Those he mentored include: Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Paul Hackett, Jim Fassel and Dennis Green who among them have six Super Bowl appearances and three Championships. The next level of Bill Walsh’s coaching tree includes: Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Brian Billick, Jon Gruden, Mike McCarthy, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid, Gary Kubiak, Jim Harbaugh, and John Harbaugh who have seven Super Bowl appearances and five Championships. Therefore, since 1981, Bill Walsh — and his coaching tree — have appeared in 16 Super Bowls (and won 11 titles). On average, 43% of Super Bowls have included Walsh or a coach from his coaching tree. That is why he is considered an all time great coach, or arguably, the greatest NFL coach in its history.

Leadership legacy transcends sports, of course, so turn this example to your current work as a leader. What is your legacy? Are you measuring it in the growth of your company/team? Or, the number of changes you have implemented? Instead, what is your legacy on developing other leaders? Although their leadership may occur outside of your organization, your legacy grows with every leader you develop. Your vision, teachings, and mentorship stay with them, even if they move to other organizations. Similar to Bill Walsh, many leaders would argue that this is the true measure of a strong leadership legacy.

So, how much time do you spend actively developing your team members? Actively does not mean teaching them how to do things. Actively means actively investing in them. Leaders ought to sit down with their leaders and create strategies to develop them, individually. Understanding their personal and professional long-term goals is essential to a successful outcome. In most cases, leaders ought to alter course and spend more time focusing on developing their team members. This ought to include (a minimum) of quarterly goal-setting meetings and can be immensely improved with daily interactions. In fact, having a third party coach facilitate these quarterly discussions may be an important step.

In the end, your leadership legacy will have the greatest impact in your focus on mentoring others, no matter how large you grow your team or how many processes you implement. Your ability to develop future leaders is the cornerstone to your leadership legacy.

Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D.

As Director of Leadership Development and Analytics, Dr. Scott C. Whiteford is a leading authority on The Science of Talent. His primary analytical focus is utilizing Talent Plus’ Executive Interview to help companies select and coach leaders based on their strengths. As a Director within Talent Plus’ Development Plus practice, Dr. Whiteford utilizes tools such as the Executive Interview, Collaborative Coaching and Executive Coaching to develop leaders, build effective teams and help grow organizations through a strengths-management philosophy and positive psychology.