Thoughts on Leadership: Learning from the Best

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me at home, starting the week with my typical Monday WIG calls with our CEOs. Next, I attended the Berkshire Hathaway Energy Weekly Team Meeting and participated in a virtual webinar, “Lessons in Leadership” with my good friend Dermot Buffini, CEO of Buffini & Company. The session was moderated by RISMedia’s founder, president and CEO John Featherston. Finally, I finished the week with nine Q1 reviews with our CEOs, which I will continue through Friday.

Let’s jump back to the RISMedia webinar because it was a virtual chance to brainstorm and collaborate with two fantastic industry leaders. In case you missed the session, here are a few takeaways we discussed: 

The first question I was asked was, “What leader do you most admire?” And I answered there are many—Warren Buffett because he is our leader at Berkshire Hathaway, Jack Welch because his first job with GE was in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where I was born, and John F. Kennedy because at the young age of 43, was the leader of the free world. But the one who had the most influence on me was former head coach Bill Wash of the San Francisco 49ers. Even before the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion were at the forefront of the workplace, he was already adding diversity to his team by hiring minority assistant coaches, a practice that the league later adopted.

The next question was, “What did you learn from their leadership style?” Here are six leadership lessons from someone who had a huge influence on me, Bill Walsh:

  1. It’s a simple reminder that an important quality of leadership is developing more leaders. For example, his seven 49ers assistant coaches who became head coaches led to another 21 assistants becoming head coaches. In total, 28 head coaches are in the Bill Walsh coaching family tree.
  2. Praise. One of the best tools at a leader’s disposal. As Bill Walsh said, “Few things offer greater return on less investment than praise.”
  3. Preparation and planning for all possible outcomes is critical. Bill would script out the first 18 plays of a game and he would script out every possible situation that could come up during the game. In the heat of all that emotion, when you have a short time to call a play, he would have already prepared for the play. It was the ultimate example of preparedness leading to execution and success.
  4. Leadership is about the example you set and the culture you create. As Bill Walsh once said, “Others follow you based on the quality of your actions rather than the magnitude of your declarations.”
  5. He also said, “Your enthusiasm becomes their enthusiasm.” In the follow-the-leader ideology of Bill Walsh, it’s not just your actions but also your attitude that sets the tone for the entire team.
  6. Another concept Bill Walsh made famous: the notion that belief is the pathway to limitless success. He said, “You need to stretch people to help them achieve their full potential … the most powerful way to do this is by having the courage to say, ‘I believe in you.’” I saw that first-hand as Bill stretched my friend Dwight Clark from a 10th round draft pick to “The Catch” that started the 49ers franchise dynasty.

So, what’s the message? I think the message is best defined in the final question I was asked, which is, “What advice would you give somebody who’s looking to get into leadership?” My answer is that when hiring, you should try to surround yourself with good people and not just people who are good at what they do. When your team is made up of genuine, authentic, optimistic and inspiring people, you add a level of openness, mutual respect and fairness to your company and culture that just can’t be replicated any other way. Look for this in the people you bring onto your team and foster this goodness, so it can forever grow.