by Matt Thomas
Last night, I watched my beloved San Francisco 49ers beat the Los Angeles Rams, which never gets old by the way. Historically, winning is something the 49ers are familiar with. But, like any organization, being successful doesn’t just happen. Among other things, it requires hard work, honesty, and the desire to be better by helping everyone get better.
These qualities are written across the tenure of coaching legend Bill Walsh. The first year Walsh coached this storied franchise was 1979 and his new team was the worst in the NFL (a record of 2-14 his first year). But, over the next three years, the work that was done by everyone in the organization would result in the first of 3 Super Bowl wins. It’s an incredible story!
The process that took place for these unimaginable outcomes to be realized is actually even more amazing. When leaders set out to change an organization or to lead it through a process of improvement, they often set goals, plans, and a timeline that they want to measure against in order to be successful. Walsh did not believe this would be the most effective plan. In fact, his plan, what he called the “Standard of Performance,” was a process that involved everyone in the organization intensely focusing on evidenced improvement leading to one specific goal…a championship. What made this process unique were two points Walsh repeatedly emphasized.
1.Success was not defined by what he wanted the team to accomplish but rather who he wanted them to become…champions.
Instilling a process that reminds a team of who they are becoming rather than what needs to be done is difficult to replicate. For Walsh, it required clear and measurable goals, deep trust throughout the entire organization, laser focus on solving real problems, and eliminating anything that prevented improvement.
2.Becoming a champion would require improvement by everyone.
Walsh knew that taking over a team with a 14% winning percentage would not be an easy task. Stories are told of how Walsh assessed everything and everyone within the organization in hopes of finding areas, even deceptively small areas, to improve. This, he believed, was the underlying reason for his team’s success.
For schools and educational leaders, this “standard of performance” can be replicated but it requires administrators and teachers to work together to build deep trust, to honestly assess real problems that impact student outcomes, and to strive to eliminate obstacles that prevent improvement from taking place.
At Baylor’s Center for School Leadership, our work is grounded in this practice. My colleague and friend Jon Eckert rightly says,
“If recent years have taught us anything, we cannot improve schools as isolated individuals. The myth of the solitary genius or heroic leader acting alone has been exposed as a dangerous fallacy because no one can possibly measure up against the idealized versions of these idealized heroes in our own minds. The range of challenges in schools means that a school “leader” will be unable to meet all of the demands, even if she tries to distribute tasks. However, the complexity that arises from myriad challenges makes education infinitely interesting for broad-based networked school leadership that requires the collective expertise of a diverse range of leaders, including students, within a school. From improvement science to deliberate practice to educators’ intuition based on their shared experiences, we know that we need others to improve."
If this sounds like the work you want your school to be doing, join us in Dallas, Texas on June 13-14, 2022 for the Academy for Transformational Leadership.
At this once a year event, you will join teams from around the country for a two-day launch of what we hope will be a year of school-wide improvement. By the end of our time, each school will create and present a plan for addressing one problem of practice and be invited to launch a year of progress with three to eight other schools using improvement science approaches to solve similar problems.
Read all 17 principles of Walsh's Standard of Performance