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.

  • Danielle Devereux

    I really liked the first point in this article “You don’t need superior talent to be a winner”. I completely agree with this. With football players, it is their job to stay strong physically, but it is up the coach to keep them mentally strong. If they think they can’t win, then they probably won’t. The coach has to keep them motivated and make them see that they can win. He also has to make sure to keep them excited about the games. Harbaugh is doing what other coach’s are not, and I think they could learn a lot from him.

  • Logan Coffman

    You don’t even have to be a fan of Michigan football to respect the immediate impact Jim Harbaugh has had on the program. It goes to show that often those leaders who are willing to embrace methodologies that to the masses may seem unorthodox are usually the same leaders that possess enough gumption to be remembered in history. I’m curious if any of our readers can think of other examples of leaders with similar zaniness in sports or other fields?

  • Michael Kaelin

    As an athlete and someone who loves sports, this article was very enjoyable and inspiring to me. I view leadership as not just leading people the way you want to lead, but to meet people where they are at. Everyone is different, and therefore people cannot be taught nor led the same if they are to be successful. I liked the way Mark went about talking about this subject and it has given me a new way to look at leadership as a whole. Thank you

  • Charlee Riggio

    I like the idea of leadership and the success of a coach is creating the culture. No matter what kind of leadership style you have whether it is a “do as I do” type you are essentially putting off that message. If a coach is all about winning and only having the al start athletes the culture would be very dfferent for Harbaugh’s team. The think that I admire about him is his willingness to take responsibility. No matter the outcome Harbaugh is always on the front line. This speaks highly to those who follow him and also something for all leaders, no matter the context, to follow.

  • Taylor Lonsdale

    I really like the comparison of athletics and business. I’ve played sports my whole life, I was a coach for a while so I’ve seen both sides of the game. I coached at a high school for three years and I learned a lot through that experience. Being a coach/CEO is not just about directing a group of people. What Harbaugh did for Michigan is an example of what it takes to succeed in a role of leadership. He was able to step in and analyze the situation and from there construct a plan about what needed to be done to reach his goals.

  • Ben Heiserman

    It’s undeniable that strong leadership is a vital toll in order to achieve success in the business of football. It doesn’t matter if its collegiate athletics, professional football, or even high school level, leadership is an important tool for creating a winning culture. But football is a business that depends on great leaders to emerge from the pack and rise to the top as faces of the business, such as Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers, so it’s easy to see how important leadership is to success in the football industry.

  • Victor Ribakare

    O-H-I-O STATE! Just had to get that out there before delving into the topic at hand. Many entrepreneurs, from my perspective, tend to go with the grain no matter what situation they are in and the challenges ahead. Jim Harbaugh is the perfect example of going against the grain. As a new coach in the league with a mediocre team, you are building a reputation just like entrepreneurs. There is no ideal type of leader in any profession and like Harbaugh said, one has to be willing to look like a fool. A good leader has to adapt to his particular environment and situation in order to maximize what can be accomplished with what he has around him. Everything else, like the good players or increased customers, will come naturally as long as that leader is doing what he needs to do.

  • Chris White

    While I’m not much of a football fan, I can definitely relate to the roll that a good coach plays. Playing high school hockey with a coach that focused solely on the “key players” to lead the team to victory was an absolute disaster, whereas a different coach that felt every player on the team mattered, and built up everyone’s ability and confidence was a key contributor to our success on the ice. Changing the culture, and the overall thought process of all team members was pertinent to our success and ability to perform at higher levels.

  • David Kidd

    I believe in the “winning culture” described by your zany football coach, but I contest that you do need “superior talent” in order to be superior. Believing isn’t everything, especially in business, and a winning culture is just a facet of a successful team.

  • Sarah Nelson

    I disagree with David here about the “superior talent,” we’ve seen teams win national championships that did not have the most talented individuals, but those teams were able to win because of the the try-hard attitude of the players and good leadership both by the coach and players. Passion is key in creating a winning culture and Michigan is a great example of this. Of course some level of talent is necessary but you don’t need superior talent.

  • Matt Goodman

    Harbaugh’s approach to changing a team is widely applicable. First off he realized he wasn’t a good fit for the NFL and thus opted into college ball. A highly respectable act considering NFL coaches get paid on average much higher than college coaches. Harbaugh recognized where he could create value and made Ann Arbor believe in him. Second, he made his players buy into his system – a tactic any great leader invokes. Harbaugh took his ‘inferior talent’ and added a dash of belief with a side of great leader ship; making us all very excited about the lessons he’ll teach us next season.

  • Daniel Hartman

    I agree with you David, without you do need that “superior talent” to excel in most respect. I do believe that hard work and the try-hard attitude that Sarah mentions can help anyone grow and succeed in most things.

  • Sierra Stein

    I completely agree with what @Sarah Nelson:disqus had to say. If you have “superior talent” on your team, that’s wonderful and it could definitely influence the amount of games won. However, how many individual players with “superior talent” would a team need in order to be considered a superior team? If you have one “superior” player who doesn’t know how to work well with others, then you have this “superior talent” that isn’t benefically contributing in that environment. It takes strong leadership ability, as seen in Harbaugh, to take individual talent and incorporate that throughout the entire team. The same can be said with a team that doesn’t posses “superior talent.” If you have a group of individuals, with dedicated mindsets, the ability to cooperate well as a team, and strong leadership at the threshold the potential is endless. I don’t think you need “superior talent,” I think you need to posses a superior mindset.

  • Hunter Ward

    I believe that having “superior talent” or a “winning culture” isn’t enough to be a winning team or a successful company. I believe you need both. Lets say you have the most talented player in the game but he doesn’t have a winning attitude, he wont have much of an effect on the game. On the other side of that argument, if you have a player that works hard but doesn’t have the ability to perform, he wont have much of an effect on the game either. If you are going to have a successful team, you need a mixture of both.

  • Noah Green

    I really like the analogy of coaching football to being successful as a leader in the business world. The most successful coaches are those that are not afraid to to take failure and create a completely unique way to overcome adversity. Sometimes in order to succeed you need to think outside of the box. Harbaugh is a great example of this. Another example, in Super Bowl XLVI the Saints were trying to win so their head coach did something unique and kicked a surprise onside kick. This was a risk but if the coach had not implemented this play the saints might have lost. Another example is the New England Patriots. Coach Belichick is able to take people like Tom Brady who did not have superior talent, put a culture of amazing work ethic and win four Super Bowls. Belichick adjusts to his team and thats what makes him successful. This is a great comparison to the business world because as you win, people admire your success.

  • Reid Trauernicht

    I agree that a football coach and his team’s culture can be a winning formula. It’s interesting that a business’s culture and leadership is the winning formula in corporate world as well. The strongest companies people can think of are generally Google aka Alphabet or Apple. Both of those companies were founded on an innovative culture and had very strong leaders. This should become a guiding blueprint for the many people building up their motivation to start their start up company. They should realize that their company’s culture and the leadership they bring as the company grows are some of the most important aspects to becoming an eventual success.

  • Adam Bundy

    As an Ohio native and a Ohio state fan it pains me to find anything good in Michigan, however I admire Harbaugh’s tactics. Michigan finished with the 6th best recruiting class and i feel like that had a lot to do with the culture Jim is implementing. Often companies and football teams attempt to set a traditional style to the way the do their business but that doesn’t always work and coaches like Harbaugh and companies such as Google are setting them selves apart from the competition and attracting talent that wants the nontraditional experience.

  • Ruiz Estrada

    This is incredible. It’s such a simple way of turning a team/business/group etc. into successful one. Granted it’s easier said than done. The one thing I felt that should have been more apparent in the article is that in order to have a successful team one has to be a successful leader. One has to really stick with those ideas and continue to reach beyond your limit in order to get a successful team. You yourself have to be the model. Other than that great article.

  • Thanks so much for your comment Charlee! Your remark regarding how leadership success is tied to creating powerful culture inspired two things from me! (1) You reminded me of a First Round Review article I read where i was shocked to find out that 80% of a company’s culture is the result of the CEO (here’s the full article: Just thought you might find this interesting as well as shares data and dives into the strong relationship between leading and culture. (2) As a huge Denver Broncos fan, I’d be amiss without mentioning them here on this timely article around the Bronco’s triumph in 2016 Superbowl (hell yes!). One amazing thing about Denver Bronocos management is that every single employee for the Broncos (the people who work at the ticket counters, janitorial duties, etc.) received a ticket to the Superbowl and have always been promised this every season. Whether people realize it or not, the buy in of each and every employee of the thousands who work for the Broncos franchise are incentivized for the Broncos to win the Superbowl not just as fans (whether they are or not) but because they too will win. I think there are also a plethora of employee benefits that they all now receive (like a Superbowl trophy and vacation days I believe) now that the Broncos won. From the seemingly small contributions like cleaning bathrooms to the more appreciated roles like being the coach or playing, the rewards for winning the Superbowl were present for each employee and influenced their motivation, work ethic and willingness to go the extra mile . I think that leadership is brilliant in spearheading a organizational culture that recognizes each and every person who are part of it as well as design an environment where literally every employee wants to win. And looks like it worked this year at least =) Here’s one article I found about it: // thanks again for your comment and your inspiration!

  • I just shared this link in a reply to @charleeriggio:disqus’s comment, but I think it’s such an interesting and related point to what this post in emphasizing that I had to reshare. Check out how the Denver Bronocos (2016 Superbowl champs) literally created a winning corporate culture for each and every employee who works for the franchise in incentivizing the Broncos to win. More here: So brilliant!

  • Victor Ribakare

    My Call to Action:
    – My call to action was to post the article on Facebook to spread the word out to the thousands of ‘friends’ I have to convey different ways of building a winning culture. I decided to post this one specifically because It was a short yet very intriguing read. Also, it featured a very controversial figure in sports. Sports attracts people, at least those that I know so the hope was to get some conversation going with this post.
    – What came about from my call to action is nothing significant, unfortunately. I received only 5 likes on my Facebook post. I take full responsibility of this due to the fact that I did not make this post available long enough so that it could receive attention. First, I did not pick the right time to make the post; it was a point in the day where many people were still at work or school where they aren’t on Facebook that often. This is a great article but I did not provide people with enough time after posting it to make a report on the impact it really has.

  • Michael Kaelin

    For my call to action, I posted this article on my Facebook page. I decided to post this on my page because I have a lot of former teammates and sports fanatics that I am friends with. When thinking what to do with this call to action, I thought the best way to spread it out to people I know would be to put it on Facebook.
    The results of this call were successful in my opinion. I received a couple likes from some friends and a few comments saying that the article was a good read and very informative. What made this worth it, was one of my former teammates who is one of my best friends back home in St. Louis, messaged me on Facebook and we talked about the article. We agreed that this article made us think about how different our high school baseball experience was, in terms of coaching philosophies. We had a coach that played favorites and players who played on club teams even if they weren’t the best players. He also did things his way, which resulted in many players, including myself, not being able to play at our full potential. This article made me feel happy that there are coaches out there who value player’s individual talents and coach them in a way that creates a more unified group. Coaching is such an important responsibility, especially at lower levels, because coaches not only coach and teach the sport to the players, but they also have a responsibility to teach teamwork and that there are more important things than winning.

  • Ben Heiserman

    Reddit Post – For my call-to-action, the article I chose was Building a Winning Culture, From a Zany Football Coach and the avenue of media I chose to promote this article and Unreasonable Institute was I chose this form of media because I am particularly familiar with Reddit, so I have some advantageous statistics to possibly aid with reaching a wide audience who may potentially get involved with Unreasonable Institute. For example, I know that Reddit has a large increase in users during the nighttime in the United States, and that letting others you know on Reddit to boost your posts can really help your submitted content get more views and comments. Reddit is based on an upvote and downvote system, making posts that have more “upvotes” and comments more accessible to the average viewer, and the vice versa with downvotes. I posted in the specific subreddit of and because the general submission wouldn’t get enough hits with the volume that Reddit generally gets. So the results were that neither of my posts got any traction. I didn’t change the title, which might have been a factor since I personally thought the title was weird and unappealing, and does not reflect the great content of the article. In fact, my posts seemed to barely trend up, than get worse to the point that the amount of views are probably insignificant.