On the football field he's a superstar coach, but in business school classrooms Jim Harbaugh is an MBA MVP. Leaders from the boardroom to the battlefield can steal a page from Harbaugh's playbook, experts say, because the fiery head coach of the San Francisco 49ers displays universal leadership traits that work equally well off the field.
"There are different styles and approaches to managing different situations and different types of people," said Chester Spell, who teaches organization and management at San Jose State University. "But showing people that you care and understanding the work and getting out of the way are qualities of most good leaders."
At Santa Clara University, leadership professor Barry Posner uses Harbaugh as an example for his MBA students of the kind of leader who uses his intensity to fire up those around him and isn't afraid to make tough decisions — whether it's sticking with troubled place-kicker David Akers or replacing quarterback Alex Smith with the untested Colin Kaepernick.
"The stuff we're teaching about leadership isn't just about sports," Posner said. "It applies in families. It happens in volunteer organizations."
Harbaugh is clearly confident in his leadership skills, which he demonstrated as an NFL quarterback and as a college coach in San Diego and at Stanford before taking over the head coaching job with the 49ers in 2011.
"Harbaugh very clearly has a strong sense of who he is," said Bill Reckmeyer, a former college point guard and lacrosse player who is now a professor of leadership and systems at SJSU. "While I don't know what goes on in the locker room, it's also clear that his players have an awful lot of respect for him. If people are willing to run through a brick wall for you, there is really good leadership going on. If not, you have bad morale and passive-aggressive behavior."
Posner said Harbaugh also keeps his team focused on success by demonstrating "what we call 'inspiring a shared vision' and getting people to think about winning the Super Bowl."
But he has not shied away from making tough decisions in the public arena, such as sticking with the change in quarterbacks even after Smith recovered from the concussion that knocked him out midway through this season. Or his decision to stick with Akers.
"Leaders recognize that it's all sitting on their shoulders, and they're willing to stand up and say, 'I'm going to make a judgment,' " Reckmeyer said. "He's working as a leader and not as a manager and certainly not as an administrator."
That kind of confidence will help the leaders of any volunteer group, company or organization.
"In a situation where teamwork is of the essence — whether it's a community organization like a PTA or an academic setting or a corporate boardroom — Harbaugh's leadership style is transferable to almost every situation," Reckmeyer said.
But how would Harbaugh's fiery outbursts on the sidelines play in the corporate world or at a PTA meeting?
"It's the passion that matters," Reckmeyer said. "Ultimately people are really attracted to people who are really passionate about what they are doing."
Harbaugh's angry reaction to referees' calls "shows the people he's leading that he cares. He's showing that he wants this as badly as the players do," Spell said. "But it's not about whether you're fiery or not. What's important is showing the people you lead that you care."
Successful leaders can be quiet or loud, or anything in between.
The key to successful leadership, Reckmeyer said, "is realizing that it's all about people, people, people."
Reckmeyer especially admires the slogan that Harbaugh introduced last season to unite and inspire the 49ers, asking his players, "Who's got it better than us? Nobody."
But Posner is even more impressed by the displays of respect that Harbaugh shows for his players.
"Leadership's a personal relationship," Posner said. "Leaders take us to places we've never been to before. By building up people's confidence, Harbaugh paints a picture of how we get from here to there."
Lessons in leadership
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh displays successful leadership traits that can be emulated across a wide range of organizations, such as:
• Making decisions and taking responsibility for them.
• Giving credit to his players in public while presumably dispensing criticisms in private.
• Inspiring passion among his players with his sideline outbursts.
• Understanding the difference between leading the 49ers and simply managing them.
• Offering his players a unified vision of where he wants to take them.