Paper will get people to work for you. Respect will get people to work with you.
For centuries, money has been used as a tool to buy allegiance, adherence, and adoration. Politicians buy votes, public figures buy silence, and every boss or business owner I’ve ever known has believed they could buy respect. This approach works often, but it has its limits. There’s always a point when you realize that whatever you buy with paper, eventually turns to paper.
Look to the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s as a perfect example. When Bill Walsh took over as the coach, the team was simply…awful. They had won only four games in two full seasons. But in Walsh’s third year, they won 13 games and a Super Bowl trophy.
The players were still getting paid the same as the previous two years. They still enjoyed the same lifestyle as they did before. So, what changed?
The answer was in a fundamental shift in leadership. The owner, Ed DeBartolo had previously run the team like a business. As long as they were making money, as long as the players and staff were getting paid, all would be well. But this approach resulted in little success, low morale, and players and staff just going through the motions.
Their commitment was as thin as the paper they were paid with.
But when Bill Walsh became coach, he began to instill an internal culture that centered around respect, trust, and appreciation—attributes of a first-class operation. He had lofty expectations for everyone on the payroll, but in return he treated everyone fairly and decently. He engaged with his players, built relationships with everyone in the organization, and prioritized personal contact with everyone.
As a result, he and the 49ers ownership built a sense of family and belonging within the organization. The players didn’t demand pay raises; the coaches were among the lowest paid in the league. But because they belonged to something bigger and they were treated with respect, they all took on a common mission together as a single unit.
The 49ers won three Super Bowls under Bill Walsh, and two more in the years after he retired. In building a successful team for years to come, Walsh and 49ers ownership didn’t just do it with money. They did it with sacrifice and commitment to their people. In return, each member of the team made deep sacrifices and commitments of their own—all ingredients for an enduring winning culture.
The most important part of a successful organization is how people are treated. You can pay someone as much as you want, but if you haven’t made them feel part of something larger than themselves, their loyalty, energy, and motivation will whittle away over time, just like paper.
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