The day after the San Francisco 49ers won the 2020 NFC Championship and earned a ticket to the Super Bowl, I was on the phone with a Stanford instructor whose management class played a role in the team's winning season.

The team is hoping to win their first Super Bowl trophy in 25 years when they play the Kansas City Chiefs on February 2nd this year. The 49ers' comeback, which has been built over the last three seasons, has proven that a powerful leadership tactic gets results--a vision statement.

It's a strategy that can take you from where you are today to where you want to be.

Entrepreneur Burke Robinson teaches a course in decision making at Stanford University. John Lynch, a former NFL player and television analyst, took the class in the summer of 2014. Lynch was learning the skills he would need for the next step in his career--management and leadership.

When Lynch accepted the job as General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, he found a team badly in need of new talent, energy and attitude. Together with newly hired coach, Kyle Shanahan, the two implemented the vision statement exercise Lynch learned in Robinson's class. They even asked Robinson to facilitate a workshop at the team's headquarters to prepare a vision statement for the 2017 draft.

"A successful strategy starts with a clear and actionable vision statement," Robinson told me.

The exercise worked so well during the 2017 draft that the vision became the team's rallying cry to this day.

Just start writing.

The hardest part of crafting a vision statement is writing something down, says Robinson. If you think in vague terms, it won't feel real. In the workshop with the 49ers team ahead of the 2017 draft, Robinson and Lynch wrote down a bunch of words and aspirations. Then, they began to edit them down to the words that captured the essence of what they were trying to do. Here's the final vision statement:

Our nucleus of dedicated players will re-establish The 49er Way and lead our organization back to the top of the NFL. These players will represent our core values and beliefs in both their talent and spirit.

Since the 49ers had won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s, 're-establishing' their winning ways was highly motivational because fans and the organization's leaders can vividly recall the team's glory days.  

The details are also very important. Lynch and Shanahan agreed that the players they drafted would have to exhibit both talent and spirit, which they further defined in a short list of bullet points under the vision. For example, they looked for players who showed "Contagious Competitiveness" and "Mental toughness" as well as the willingness to "Protect the team," according to Robinson.

Implement the vision.

The vision statement took several hours to create and was implemented immediately. Players who were recruited showed both talent and spirit. "John and Kyle both agreed that one bad apple would spoil the whole barrel. Anyone they picked had to be strong in both dimensions," Robinson says.

The winning attitude was on display in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers. For example, 49ers tight end George Kittle leads the team in receptions and receiving yards, but gladly spent most of the game blocking. Those blocks created lanes for running back Raheem Mostert to carry the ball for four touchdowns. That's "protecting the team."

See the vision everywhere.

When Kittle or the other players enter the 49ers locker room, they see the words "protect the team."  The vision statement is prominently displayed on walls and in rooms. Lynch has the vision statement under a glass cover sitting on his desk. He can't miss it. Neither can other members of the organization. Everyone sees the vision everywhere they look.

According to Robinson, the first step in the success of any organization or startup should be to set a clear vision. Take the time to draft a vision statement and, above all, use it as a guide for all your decisions.  

Published on: Jan 21, 2020
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