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Lessons in Leadership from Super Bowl XLVII: What Makes a Great Coach, and a Great CEO

The Super Bowl’s right around the corner, and that means I’ve got football on my mind — especially my hometown team, the 49ers, and their remarkable coach, Jim Harbaugh. He’s had an amazing season, one that offers some valuable lessons in leadership, and not just for football. Any CEO — or any senior executive who’s preparing to make the move to that top slot — can learn a lot from the 49ers’ coach.

Not everybody thought Harbaugh had the makings of a great leader. In his own playing days, he was only a fair-to-middling quarterback, not the kind who has what it takes to take his team all the way to the big show. But as a coach, he’s something very special. And it’s worthwhile taking the time to try to figure out why — and what his secret is.

But maybe it’s not a secret, exactly. In many ways, Harbaugh exemplifies one of the key leadership principles Jim Collins identified in his book Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus and the right people in the right seats.” That’s what he did when he chose quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which a lot of football watchers thought was a serious mistake. Harbaugh saw something in Kaepernick that almost nobody else did — maybe not even Kaepernick himself — and he built an offensive team and strategy around him that’s taken the 49ers all the way to New Orleans.

It wasn’t an accident, either. Harbaugh is well-known for watching thousands of hours of game video on players and prospects — so much that he can see the little things that hold the potential to make a good player great. He was watching Kaepernick closely all the way back in his second year of college ball at the University of Nevada. He saw that this young man would never be a classic pocket passer — the “gold standard” for a pro quarterback — and instead pushed him to become a great read/option player, which turned out to be exactly what the 49ers needed.

Now, isn’t what Harbaugh did — carefully watching for hidden potential, and helping develop it — exactly what every great corporate leader does? A world-class CEO watches people for a long, long time before drawing final conclusions about them. The old adage “Nothing is as it seems” is never truer than when it comes to managing people. That’s why the best leaders take their time getting to know what qualities people have, and then commit the effort to develop those qualities to their fullest potential. And just like Harbaugh—and Kaepernick, too—they have to be prepared to essentially “reinvent” themselves, and to keep doing it throughout their careers.

In my own career in executive search, I’ve had to do exactly the same thing: reinvent myself, develop new skills and improve my abilities. As the market has evolved in recent years, I’ve focused my firm, Trilogy Search, on developing new core competencies. Today, for example, we’re much better at building senior leadership teams for our clients than we were even a few years ago. Why? Because that’s what our clients have told us they want. In a field like executive search, which has gotten smaller and more competitive over the past few years, those of us who have survived and thrived have changed in keeping with the market. And that takes preparation — the same kind of preparation that has brought Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick to the Super Bowl.

So what are the lessons in leadership that every CEO — present or future — needs to learn?

Know what the market is saying to you. This means not just listening to your clients, but watching them, too. What’s changed about them in the past five years, or even in the past year? Who are they now? Many of the companies I work with have developed impressive internal talent acquisition departments. The people in those departments are all young, driven, and crazy smart. And even more importantly, they’re willing to listen and learn and get better at what they do. I’m deeply impressed by them, and the experience of working with them has changed me and my business in really unexpected ways.

Nurture your employees. First, make sure your professionals are in a position to make a meaningful contribution, one that aligns with their skills and style. Then, build trust and personal relationships with your team members, so that they have the confidence and support to truly excel.  A case in point: I hired a recent graduate in an operations role. He’s handling most of Trilogy’s external communications, and gets it like none of us do. He’s been with us about seven months now, and he’s already accomplished things I’d never have thought were possible.

Keep getting smarter every day. This is the toughest one, by far. You need to know and use the tools of the 21st century — and recognize that it’s your youngest employees who understand them best. Some tools like LinkedIn, for example, have turned out to have a very different impact from what most of us expected. We thought they’d provide more jobs, but what they’ve really done is democratize the workplace. The result is that the people who work for me usually know much more about what’s happening out there than I do. So LinkedIn and services like it aren’t really tools for hiring — you still need highly skilled recruiting professionals for that — but they are very important as a way of building a personal and professional brand and tapping into shared knowledge.

Never stop trying. Never. Nowadays, I see my role as being the best cheerleader in the company—making sure we don’t give up, ever, that we don’t stop trying to be better. Our people hold themselves to very exacting standards, but because they have their heads down most of the time, working on things for me and the company, they don’t have the perspective they need. Helping everyone keep a good perspective on the work, the company and their individual contributions — that’s my job. Even if they make a mistake, that perspective can help make them better. Recently, one of my most outstanding people made a mistake, by not checking something before it went out. Once the mistake was discovered, he immediately apologized, took full responsibility, and fixed the problem. That’s exactly what he should have done, and in my eyes it makes him worth more now than he was before the mistake. It shows integrity, of course, but it also shows that he’ll never stop trying and it marks him as someone who has what it takes to be a leader in his own right someday.

Now, not many CEOs or senior executives experience the kind of intense competitive pressure and media attention that Jim Harbaugh will be under come Sunday.  But leadership in any field isn’t easy. And the qualities that make Harbaugh one of the all-time great coaches so early in his career are the same ones that make a great CEO. That’s why I won’t just be watching the players on the field on Sunday. I’ll be watching the sidelines, too, for lessons in leadership from one of the best in the world. And so should you.

Kindest regards,




Charles Pappalardo