The leadership tree exercise

Issue 17: How the legendary Bill Walsh coaching tree can help you reflect on your desired impact

The priorities this Sunday are simply writing from the couch and watching football. Despite my recent mixed feelings about the NFL, American football is a sport I love. I used to play and find a lot of inspiration around teamwork and tactics. I believe it’s one of the sports that personify teamwork in every position that truly conveys “a chain is as strong as its weakest link.” Unlike other sports where certain individuals can rise to the occasion, football requires precision, efficiency, and communication.

With the TV in the background, I’m writing email updates to humans who've made a huge impact in my career to update them on how I am doing. I think similar to writing to a board of directors. It’s also a great time to remind and thank them for the impact they’ve made in my career.

As I await my 6-5 Raiders take on the 0-11 Jets, I pondered about mentorship and leadership in the world of football. There is no greater example of that long-term impact than The Bill Walsh Coaching Tree. As a Raiders fan, it pains me to write so much praise about a San Francisco 49ers coach (though did you know he started as a Raiders assistant?).

For those who don’t know Walsh, he won three Super Bowls and is known to invent the West Coast Offense, a tactic that encouraged short passes to take what you can gain instead of long passes or running. The hall of fame coach was renowned for his attention to detail and fostering a culture of excellence. An example is when Walsh worked with the front desk at the headquarters on how to answer the phone to sweat all the details. Walsh has a saying that would also be the title of his book, “The Score Takes Care of Itself.” In essence, don’t focus on the score of the game, and if you continue to develop and improve, you will win games and the score will take care of itself. This mindset reminds me of Simon Sinek’s book “The Infinite Game” which speaks to similar themes of having a long-lasting impact vs. finite goals.

Instead of going into details of the book, I recommend you give it a read (book club, anyone?). Let’s focus on the coaching tree, a representation of excellence Walsh built with dozens of protégés who were on his staff. Many who went on to be successful head coaches in their own right. A coaching tree is similar to a family tree, but for coaches, which traces lineage to a head coach are a part of, often as assistants.

The diagram below shows three coaching trees: Walsh, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Parcells—probably the most famous trees of all. Walsh’s tree is basically larger than Schottenheimer’s and Parcells’ combined.

This tree is likely out-of-date because it seems like every year, a new head coach is hired that has lineage to the infamous tree. His long-term impact is so great that many of the assistant coaches who were on his team have their own coaching trees, such as Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden, and the late Dennis Green (the “they are who we thought they were!” guy).

You do not define legacy

Let’s remember that Walsh spent decades building a culture of excellence and improving on it. In addition, his team members went on more decades to refine and evolve it. Your leadership will take time (perhaps your entire career) to create the long-lasting impact. The purpose of this exercise is to go through forming your leadership tree to better understand what you need to improve and work on. 

Start with the reverse leadership tree

Reflecting on your personal lineage is a great way to understand what impact you want to have long-term. I’ll use my own experience for the purpose of this exercise, though I’d love to conduct studies on design leaders. I broke the exercise into four areas:

  • What main themes come up when you think of them?

  • Why are they on your career tree?

  • What did you learn from them that you’ll apply to your own tree?

  • Any additional notes

Note that the exercises do not include everybody who made an impact on my career as that would be a very long list. I used Notability to write up notes on my reverse leadership tree.

From this exercise I learned the core values I want to continue to work on:

  • People

  • Purpose

  • Innovation

  • Storytelling

Creating your leadership tree

Now that you’ve reflected on your influences, map out your own tree. The intention of this isn’t to create an org chart, instead focus on holistic impact you can have. Break the walls of your current organization. 

Again, for the purpose of this exercise, I’m won’t map out every designer on my teams, though I would love to see what it looks like.

After mapping out the leadership tree, I realized a few insights:

  • There are many people in my tree who are already developing their own or have in the past. I’d love to see what theirs look like!

  • This exercise reminded me of all the great people I had the opportunity to work with. I need to reach out to them to catch up

  • How am I helping each individual find their leadership style and voice?

  • There is so much I’ve learned from people in my tree that I’ve taken back to incorporate.

Give it a try

Whether you are a leader of people or lead as an individual contributor, I believe drawing up your tree will help you reflect on key areas you want to focus on. Hopefully throughout the exercise you pick up a few key insights of what long-term impact you’d like to make. You can clone the Figma template I made to build your tree.

Happy Sunday and Go Raiders!