Author – Russell Bourne 3/11/2021
Does "slow and steady wins the race" apply to leadership?
If you're a sports fan, surely you've seen a new coach come to a horrible team and turn them around instantly. Much of the time, the success flamed out as fast as it came. Meanwhile, if you look at organizations that enjoyed prolonged success, including dynasties, they usually had coaches who lacked the initial splash and even seemed rudderless in the early years.
The San Francisco 49ers have shown us textbook examples of both.
In 2011, Jim Harbaugh inherited a roster and coaching staff that was totally lost and had finished 6-10 the prior year. He came in with a motivational message of "the team" and a commitment to blocking as a cornerstone of a power football playbook. Ahead of any reasonable expectation, his first 3 seasons the team went 13-3, 11-4-1, and 12-4, and appeared in the NFC championship game all 3 years. But, even by the 3rd season, there were warning signs that the message was growing stale and drama took its grip over the entire organization. In his 4th season Harbaugh was clearly a lame duck; the 49ers went 8-8 and he was out as soon as the last game ended.
In 1979, Bill Walsh took over a 2-14 team and promptly went... 2-14. His 2nd year margi``````````````````nally improved to 6-10 as he tinkered and balanced his West Coast Offense playbook with his personnel. Many teams might have fired Bill at that point, but the 49ers allowed Walsh's groundwork to play out, and were rewarded not only with a 13-3 record and Super Bowl championship in 1981, but with a dynasty lasting 10 years. The roots were so deep, even after the dynasty ended, the NFC's road to the Super Bowl ran through San Francisco for another 10 years after that.
So, when it comes to choosing leaders, what lessons can the business world take from sports?
First, morale that depends on emotional peaks will wear out, often explosively. It's been hypothesized that a coach can give up to 3 motivational speeches to a team before the effect is lost. Sustainable morale comes from leaders who practice a pattern of collaboration, learning, and positive reinforcement.
Second, a pre-made playbook is inherently not custom to your situation. There may be an initial performance bump because of the motivational message, but things can fall apart when your challenges don't stick to the script - and challenges always evolve. Leaders will have staying power if they show up with a framework for how to evolve their playbook to stay relevant to their personnel and current challenges.
To be clear, there’s a place for both kinds of leaders. There are times you might need a short-term leader who can turn things around fast, and other times you need someone to sustain steady growth.
That brings up the final point: is there any such thing as a leader who can do both? It’s rare, but yes.
Famously, CS programs can yield fast results in areas like engagement, but it may take several quarters before net revenue retention shows the rewards. Because of that, each CS leader has a unique opportunity to be the rare one who breeds both short-term and long-term success.