Harbaugh’s Leadership – Keys to Victory

Great examples of strong leadership can come from anywhere.  For those football fans out there who were glued to their video screens this past weekend, you could not have asked for a more exciting playoff game than the one between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. It is hard to imagine a more stunning 36-32 victory over the supercharged Saints. The game featured four lead changes in the final four minutes, and five turnovers forced by the 49ers’ defense and special teams.  Yikes!

There was an interesting piece I saw on the Fox Sports web site called Harbaugh’s bond pushing 49ers sky high

It made some interesting points.

So what led to the victory?  Obviously, there were many talented players who turned in impressive performances, but I am drawn also to the impressive leadership of 49er coach Jim Harbaugh.

Here are some of the points I find noteworthy about Harbaugh’s leadership:

1)      He Inspires confidence – by his own example.

We all expect our leaders to have a competence about them. We want to believe they know what they are doing, and the more we observe their competent behavior, the more our respect and faith builds in them.   In Harbaugh’s case, he has been there, having served as a successful quarterback in the NFL for 15 seasons.  Imagine seeing him in 1996, when he was quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.  Harbaugh had a broken nose, a severely sprained wrist, turf toe, tendonitis in his ankle and a bruised heel. Of course he was still playing.  By his stoic example, he showed that he was a tough and worthy competitor to be admired and emulated.    We get the immediate sense that he asks nothing of his players that he did not first demand of himself during his own career.  What’s more, they all know it.

2)      He Creates a Positive Culture. 

Harbaugh’s relationship with his players creates a certain spirit.   Tight end Vernon Davis described after the game “[It is] such a great group of guys, coaches and players.  I think we love coming to work every day; I know I do. And we’ll get one more week at least.  I’m loving it.”

I suggest that creating a place where people WANT to come to work does not happen by chance.  It is the by-product of deliberate actions.    Harbaugh, from his experiences, knows what it is to win, and to lose.   He seems to have a fanatical belief in success that follows in his wake.

Tackle Joe Staley says it this way, We have confidence in this locker room. It might be surprising to the outside, but part of the culture that Harbaugh is instilling, we don’t care what anybody says on the outside, if they respect us [or not], if they like the way we play, if they don’t like the way we play. It’s all about the guys in this locker room.”  Read more about how Harbaugh’s infectious attitude affects his team:  Jim Harbaugh’s Impact on the Culture of the San Francisco 49ers.

Or, watch this 2 min You-Tube clip where you see classic Harbaugh giving a post game talk to his team in the locker room after their recent October victory over the Detroit Lions.

3)       His relationship with players is built on trust and respect. 

This weekend’s success required that first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who’d gone bust, Alex Smith, have uncompromised faith in each other.

No problem. “He’s authentic,” Smith said. “He’s an honest coach, and he coaches everybody the same way, no matter who you are.”

Their bond and its foundation of trust quickly spread throughout the roster, and team leaders such as tight end Vernon Davis, running back Frank Gore, left tackle Joe Staley, linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive tackle Justin Smith got right in line to inspire others. The confidence mushroomed, remarkable success followed and now, the unimaginable stands before them.

4)       He is humble. 

In the midst of all the media hype and in response to compliments he was getting from some of his players. Harbaugh immediately tossed the admiration right back to his players on Saturday, and nothing about his praise seemed disingenuous.  It was raw and it was sincere, just like the man explaining how much more meaningful a playoff win is to him as a coach rather than as a player.

Yeah, I would say it does. It means more. It means that these guys are my heroes, these players,” Harbaugh said on Saturday, almost breathlessly. “I grew up dreaming of being an athlete. Those guys that were athletes were my heroes.  [I] pretty much burnt up my childhood days thinking about that. That time’s passed me by now, but my heroes are still these athletes. Our guys and the way they play. I’m just really proud of them.”

Watch also this post-game locker room talk by Harbaugh after his team defeated the NY Giants back on November 13, 2011.  Watch his passion, and his comment about “humble hearts.”


We do not know what will happen in the next playoff game, but we do know that Jim Harbaugh and his 49er ball club will go into their next game against the NY Giants with a belief in themselves that perhaps has no rival.  I guess we have to say that this will not guarantee success, but I think it increases the odds.

And so, too, will these four behaviors help your team, not matter what your business is.


1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership

One response to “Harbaugh’s Leadership – Keys to Victory

  1. Dave Keszei

    As usual you are right on target with this article! One of the unique aspects of football (or any sport in general), is that you have a strategy session and then you implement the strategy, in front of thousands of people and a national audience. You are then expected (as the CEO) to debrief the entire evolution in person and in front of everyone! What a great concept to ensure accountability……DK

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