Jim Harbaugh has been successful at every level in football. In college at the University of Michigan, he was an All-American quarterback. As the leader of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts’ offenses, he was known as a modestly talented but gritty, independent and inspirational quarterback. The son of a coach and the brother of Ravens head man John Harbaugh, Jim decided when he was still playing to become a coach himself. In the 90s, Harbaugh served an apprenticeship with the Oakland Raiders, beginning at the bottom rung of the coaching ladder. A gamer and a grinder, he’s never been afraid of ultra-hard work. He then went on to become the head guy at the University of San Diego, which is not exactly a Division I powerhouse. There, he acquired a reputation of being a game-changer and difference-maker. The program went from famine to feast.

Harbaugh was then hired to become the head coach at Stanford University. Same deal! The team improved dramatically and immediately. The fact that golden boy Andrew Luck played for him didn’t hurt, but Stanford was the alma mater in the early 70s of Jim Plunkett and in the early 80s of John Elway. During those times, Stanford didn’t achieve Harbaugh’s high level of success.

A couple of years ago, Jim was hired to coach the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. A team that had won several Super Bowls in the 80s and 90s, their record became anemic during the ensuing decade. Once again, a Harbaugh coached team improved immediately and dramatically. Last season, they came within one win of going to the Super Bowl.

As a student of leadership, leadership coach and former Corporate executive and leader, I’m infinitely interested in leadership lessons that can be imparted by people from all walks of life. Some lessons from Coach Harbaugh follow:

Wherever he has played and/or coached, he has fostered a positive culture. From tight end Vernon Davis: “We love coming to work every day; I know that I do.” From tackle Joe Staley: “We have confidence in this locker room. But part of the culture that Coach Harbaugh is instilling is that we don’t care what anyone not ON this team says ABOUT this team. It’s all about us – the guys in this locker room.”

Remember that leadership – effective leadership – is about getting people to WANT to do what needs to be done, not just to DO what needs to be done. The difference is not hair-splitting.

He inspires confidence by his own behavior, not just his words. Coach Harbaugh is a “been there/done that” leader. As quarterback of the Colts in 1996, he played with a broken nose, turf-toe, a severely sprained wrist, tendonitis in his ankle and a bruised heel. When he says he expects selfless contribution, he has credibility. His players know what kind of player HE was. He never asks for anything that he hasn’t done or isn’t doing himself.

His brother, John, tells the following story: One morning, Jim called him at 6am. He had just awakened in his own car in his own driveway. He asked John the time because he couldn’t remember whether he had just come home from work or was on his way to work. Yikes!

He creates trusting and respectful relationships. Quarterback Alex Smith, a first-round draft pick in 2005, was deemed to be a bust until Harbaugh became his coach. Jim saw something in Alex, which was quiet confidence and the necessary skills, and concluded that Smith was not achieving his potential. They worked closely together and in 2011, Alex Smith led the 49ers to a playoff run.

“He’s authentic,” Smith said of Harbaugh. “He’s an honest coach, and he coaches everybody the same way.”

This bond extended throughout the team. Players Frank Gore, Joe Staley, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis followed Jim in lockstep – becoming effective locker room leaders by following his example and expectations.

Remember this for your own team: Do as I say; not as I do doesn’t work for adults any better than it does for children. People, regardless of their ages, follow EXAMPLES more than ORDERS!

Harbaugh demonstrates quiet confidence – humility in action. Whenever Harbaugh receives plaudits for his achievements, he deflects the praise and redirects it to his players. After a playoff game: “… It means that these guys are my heroes, these players. I grew up dreaming of being an athlete. Those guys that were athletes were my heroes. I pretty much burned up my childhood days thinking about that. That time has 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.”

When Jim expresses himself in these situations, it’s genuine, not concocted or contrived. It’s obvious in his emotion to even casual observers. His players understand the depth of that. My question for you: Wouldn’t you rather have enthusiastic volunteers working for you than people going through the motions? Which type do you think Harbaugh’s players are?

He conveys a message that is consistent, heartfelt, and resonates with his players. When he sees his players tired and weak during training camp, Harbaugh tells a story about his childhood years – being raised by his parents (his dad, Jack, was also a football coach) in cramped homes and constantly moving, which is not unusual for a coach’s family. On occasion when Jack saw his sons getting a bit “down” because of their nomadic circumstances, he would look at John and Jim and ask the following question with his usual verve, “Who,” he would ask, “has it better than us?” They would answer with a loud, enthusiastic “Nobody!”

Jim tells this story in a measured, modulated, matter-of-fact way, and then repeats his father’s question for his tired team, “Who has it better than us?” They answer “Nobody!” It’s a reminder that they should feel honored to be in their circumstances as NFL players living their dream!

As a leader, think about Harbaugh’s lessons and their implications for you. Who has it better than you! To view a brief excerpt from one of Jim’s presentations to a business group, click here.

Copyright 2012 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Rand Golletz is the managing partner of Rand Golletz Performance Systems, a leadership development, executive coaching and consulting firm that works with senior corporate leaders and business owners on a wide range of issues, including interpersonal effectiveness, brand-building, sales management, strategy creation and implementation. For more information and to sign up for Rand's free newsletter, The Real Deal, visit http://www.randgolletz.com