Sports analogies are helpful when thinking about our roles as entrepreneurs. Athletic organizations were interested in teamwork, winning, and defeating the competition long before businesses started co-opting that language to describe markets, goods and profits. Coaches are like CEOs, whose leadership styles are worth analyzing. Some are more intriguing than others.

Jim Harbaugh is a football coach. Many people either love him or hate him. Regardless, he has an uncanny knack for getting the best out of his people. Last year, after the San Francisco 49ers kicked Harbaugh to the curb after three years at the helm, he had plenty of offers. He was, for the most part, a winner in San Francisco, and not many winners get fired in football. Apparently, though, Harbaugh had a talent for getting under the skin of the owners and an approach that left his very well paid pro players rolling their eyes at his motivational tactics. Even though he made it to the Super Bowl just a few years ago, he was likely not a great fit for the NFL.

A leader learns and speaks the language of their team. Tweet This Quote

Unemployed, Harbaugh opted to go back to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where the football program had seen more winning seasons in previous years. In other words, they had become losers. I grew up in Michigan during the heyday of University of Michigan football, and the last few years have seen the team fall pretty far from those glory years. What’s more, I tended to pull more for the other team in Michigan, Michigan State, a deep-seated rivalry. I say this for the purpose of letting you know this pro-Harbaugh article is written by a guy pre-disposed to be anti-Harbaugh.

Whether or not you care about football, what Jim Harbaugh has done with Michigan football should be of interest to anyone who cares about leading winning organizations. Here are three takeaways that any entrepreneur can learn from:

1. You don’t need superior talent to be a winner.

In 2014, the year before Harbaugh arrived, the team had a mediocre win-loss record of 5-7. Moreover, their crop of young players from the 2014-15 recruiting class did not even crack the top 25 from a talent standpoint. Yet the same team many analysts claimed lacked the talent to even contend came within one fumbled punt of advancing to the national championship. It was an amazing turnaround by a coach and a team that, on paper, had little chance of competing.

How do you turn a team around? Simple—change the culture. Tweet This Quote

So, how did he do it? Simple: he changed the culture. He made them believe they could win, should win and would win. Amazingly, in a game largely decided and dominated by talent, size and speed, Harbaugh showed up and somehow convinced his players they were not a mediocre squad, but as good as anyone in the nation. How did he change the culture? The next two takeaways explain.

2. A leader learns and speaks the language of their team.

Not only did he win over the current guys on his team by building a community, he made a commitment to recruiting only players who see the vision for the program. This ESPN article, “Jim Harbaugh’s dancing, shirtless, cake-loving recruiting adventures,” shares a deeper understanding of his tactics.

To create a winning culture, make your team believe they can, should, and will win. Tweet This Quote

For example, in the last year, Harbaugh slept over at one recruit’s house in an effort to get him to come play football at Michigan. When top recruits from southern states balked at coming north for the freezing Michigan winters, Harbaugh posted, “Now that we have global warming, it helps Michigan recruiting.” He mailed handwritten notes, made videos, and played backyard football with them—all tactics normally beneath the dignity of the so-called elite programs.

3. Winning attracts super talent.

When National Signing Day came early in February, just a year or so removed from having the lowest-ranked recruiting class in program history, Harbaugh landed the top recruit in the nation as well as an overall top-five class, competing for the best of the best. It wasn’t just the zany tactics that got Harbaugh’s recruits to join him. The culture change, the spirit change, and the entire attitude change became contagious at Michigan.

Good leaders aren’t afraid to look like a fool, be obnoxious, or put their heart in it. Tweet This Quote

For those of us trying to build teams and win, maybe what we need most is a leader who is not afraid to be excited about what we are trying to accomplish. Harbaugh is an example for those of us trying to get people to believe we can win, even if our track record may not necessarily look that way. He’s an example for those of us trying to compete against better locations or brands. He’s not afraid to look like a fool, not afraid to be obnoxious, and not afraid to put his heart in it. Even if you don’t like the guy or his brand, you have to respect that.

I don’t know if you and your organization need a dancing, shirtless, cake-loving adventure, but I do suspect you want to win. If that’s you, listen to Coach Jim.

About the author

Mark Moore

Mark Moore

Mark Moore is the Co-Founder of MANA Nutrition and Calorie Cloud. He was an Unreasonable Institute Fellow in 2013. He's also the author of Nourish: A God Who Loves to Feed Us.