Leadership Lesson #2

It Matters How You Play The Game: Former 49ers Coach and Hall of Famer Bill Walsh

Develop the ‘love of your fate… whatever the hell happens, you say, ‘This is what I need.’ It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. Any disaster that you can survive with integrity is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege! The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.” 
—Joseph Campbell 

Helping leaders build inspired teams led me to an unusual playing field. With no experience in sports and little knowledge of football, the idea of working with Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, never occurred. As interim Chief of Staff for a California State Senator, I was hired to help create an organizational culture change, little did I know that instead of organizational change, I would play a role in an effort that would effect thousands of youth. Due to a lack of staff, I was thrown into leading an investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs by high school athletes. At the time, steroid usage in professional sports was exploding in the national headlines with famous athletes being snared in a net called BALCO. 

Statistics showed that a ‘win at all costs mentality’ was leading young athletes to ingest performance-enhancing drugs at an alarming rate. We scheduled a legislative hearing on the topic and invited numerous athletes, coaches, trainers, and professionals to join our effort. Time after time they turned us down. It seemed no one wished to speak publicly on the dirty little secret that existed in sports. No one, except Bill Walsh, the Super Bowl winning coach of the San Francisco 49ers. 

In what would end in a 14-hour day in the State Capitol of California, Coach Walsh walked the legislative halls in great pain due to recent back surgery. I now realize his work with us probably intersected with the time he had learned of his leukemia diagnosis. Walsh refused any special treatment or fanfare, had no complaints. Mostly, I remember his great humility. 

Sitting across from Coach Walsh in the Governor’s office, I watched as he spoke persuasively to Arnold Schwarzenneger about the issues at hand. We exited the Governor’s office and ventured into a large hearing room. The sea of media and television camera crews took me aback. What had begun with a small group of people who were under funded, understaffed and facing a goliath of an industry, had snowballed into a movement that would soon become a catalyst for major change. 

Working with a brother-sister dynamic duo, John and Margaret Lyons, we utilized tools of business (marketing, relationship building, strategy, and education) to reinvent the concept of what a government hearing could be. We created a virtual community www.steroidsatissue.com connecting with those whose expertise and experiences could guide us. 

Hundreds joined our efforts: parents whose children had died from steroid abuse, student athletes, a professional baseball player, an investigative reporter, an elite sports agent, scientists, doctors, and Coach Walsh as the star testimony. Assembled in the hearing room, the participants had reached the catbird seat and were given the chance to tell their story. Within 30 minutes Margaret Lyons slipped me a note that read: “The White House has just tuned into the hearing in California.” 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”, said anthropologist Margaret Mead. I was having a ‘Margaret Mead moment’ in the State Capitol hearing room that day, but a more important leadership lesson awaited, making its presence known inside a used Volvo station wagon, during a three-hour drive with Coach Bill Walsh in the passenger’s seat.

Driving Coach Walsh

I hadn’t volunteered to drive him but I fit the profile of the only request Coach Walsh made: he wanted a person who knew very little about football. I drove Coach Walsh, from Sacramento to Woodside California. Lost in conversation over topics of children, politics, family, role models and community, the drive expanded to 31/2 hours due to a massive traffic jam. In a ‘six degrees of separation moment’ Coach Walsh and I realized we had one person in common —Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a true American hero. 

A decade prior, I had sat in a leadership class at Stanford University where James Stockdale recounted a story that has never left me. He described being shot down in his A 4 fighter-bomber over Viet Nam and his ejection from the cockpit began a six-year stint in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, as a prisoner of war. Two of those years were spent in leg irons and the remaining four in solitary confinement. 

Stockdale credited his survival to the ancient wisdom of the Greek philosopher, Epictetus. From Epictetus, Stockdale learned that the façade of culture in which each of us hides is composed of status, our power over others, wealth, connections, relationships, rank, title and degrees. It can disappear in a matter of moments, stripping us down and exposing to all the only things in life no one can ever take away: our character, reputation and integrity. 

In a prisoner of war camp, James Stockdale said he entered the world of Epictetus. Inflicting torture, psychological mistreatment, terror and despicable acts of inhumanity, Stockdale’s captors were never able to rob him of what mattered most. He said that those prisoners “who had a strong conception of who they were, those with integrity, who were comfortable with their self-image, those with character, were able to survive the brutality of the camp because their values were core qualities that no amount of abuse or torture or pain could ever dissolve. For character is permanent and issues are simply transient.”

‘Cut From A Different Cloth’ Kind of Leader

In the way that James Stockdale chose to conduct himself as a prisoner of war, I realized that Bill Walsh had done the same, but in a different arena. They were both heroes, legends, bigger than life. Amidst the commonalities they shared, the one lesson I took from both men was that it mattered greatly how one chooses to play the game. No matter the playing field, character, integrity, and reputation were the foundation upon which all great leadership was built. They understood that those traits determine our choices and actions in everything we do and say and believe as leaders. 

Coach Walsh said that he believed that if he could “help create a better man off the field that man would be a much better player on the field,” and thus his job as Coach was a far greater calling than just the game. 

Stockdale and Walsh were ‘cut from a different cloth’ kind of leaders. If you were lucky enough to engage them in conversation, in minutes you knew exactly what they stood for, who they were as people and how they conducted their lives. Those traits and qualities inspired people to follow them, engaged people to work with them. People believed that they could accomplish most any goal, no matter the obstacle, no matter the challenge, no matter the hardship under their leadership. 

Admiral Stockdale and Bill Walsh modeled the true essence of leadership. That essence is available to all of us but begins with the choice of how we decide to play the game.