Alchemy in San Francisco

Last week I posted a piece about Jim Harbaugh and the power of belief in a cause. The week prior to that, a post about Matt Flynn, preparation, and keeping your head in the game.


Smith and the 49ers have a leader they believe in.
I realize that this is a Fire Engineering blog, and not a sports blog, but bearing witness to the transformation of the San Francisco 49ers – and in particular Alex Smith (the starting quarterback) – makes one marvel at how for nearly 10 years an organization got it so wrong in terms of leadership and direction and why now they seem to be getting it right.

Where were the 49ers going wrong and how did they turn it around? They continue to pull things together – pulling out an improbable win in the waning seconds of the divisional playoffs – by rallying around one another. The 49ers and Alex Smith have a leader that believes in them – and a leader that they believe in as a team – this synergy is where the turnaround starts and maybe where it ends.

Can it really be that simple? 


Sometimes it is.

Quality Coaching

Much of Alex Smith’s success this season can be attributed to quality coaching. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in his career; but overall, due to lack of a solid coaching foundation, he has not been able to perform week-in and week-out with consistency. The pieces were there – the sports pundits could be heard saying that the 49ers were one of the most talented teams in the league – the most talented team that wasn’t winning.

In any endeavor, results are based on high standards and the ability to achieve those standards consistently. Previous years had seen 49ers players subjected to many changes in leadership styles, and they had continually had the carpet pulled from beneath their feet. The only consistency in the organization was inconsistency – and nothing was working.

There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.

The previous two head coaches – Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary – could easily have been described as impatient, irritable, vague, ruthless, egomaniacal bullies. At every opportunity they would publicly chastise players, and routinely threw Smith under the bus, questioning his toughness and his leadership skills.

So much for praising in public and criticizing in private.

The books say leadership is not a mysterious and innate quality that certain individuals are born into. True, some have a tendency toward leadership traits, such as a stalwart personality – but a strong personality on its own does not guarantee that a person will be successful in a leadership role. Sometimes the opposite is true.

Nolan and Singletary both possessed strong leadership characteristics, but couldn’t get their men to respond.

What doesn’t work as a leader:
  • Being ruthless
  • Being a loner
  • Being uncooperative
  • Being ambiguous
  • Being a dictator
Strong personalities, when left unchecked, can lead to a despotic form of leadership. Those who choose to lead by oppression and absolute power are not paying forward positive leadership traits, and often cause those who must follow this positional leader to detach from the organization in order to survive.

Which brings us to the current coaching staff. Harbaugh preaches the team concept and will not disparage his men at any time. Harbaugh has built a solid support system around his quarterback – pledging his allegiance to him even before the season started. 

There has been no ambiguity. Harbaugh saw something in the kid who had been the scapegoat for all of the team’s ills, and knew he could reach him. He has placed people around Smith who touch him in different ways. Smith has lacked quality coaching in the past – now that he has unwavering support and quality instruction there is no telling how far he and his team can go. A group of men once adrift in a sea of uncertainty are now one win away from the Super Bowl.

How many times over the last year have you read articles in fire service publications about the vacuum that exists in our realm as a result of the massive exodus of veterans? We have to constantly move forward and look to the past for guidance.

The key is that we must always move forward.

Many times, all people need to be successful is for someone to believe in them. There are many great brothers and sisters in the fire service today who are working towards leading the profession forward with forethought and insight as great as that of anyone of any generation, past or present.

Like Smith, these “doers” gain confidence if people in leadership positions recognize their drive and support their efforts. If their attempts at positive change are continually cast off or snubbed, their talent will wither and die. It happens all the time.

Alex Smith has the right people leading him.

Frank Gore (the 49ers starting running back) said this of his quarterback, “(Smith) deserves all this. He has had some tough times. We have the right people leading us. And he’s got the right people leading him.”

Egos Checked at the Door

Harbaugh has instilled trust in his men – he motivates them with an unflinching commitment to the team. He does this by defending them from outsiders and constantly supporting their efforts. He is honest with them – but most of all he is a team builder. Harbaugh is a great communicator who relates to his guys as a man who has been there before. He has credibility because he says what he means and means what he says.


Harbaugh knows what it means to be the underdog. Harbaugh was himself an NFL quarterback who was never the most gifted athletically and played with a chip on his shoulder the size of an aircraft carrier. He excelled because of a relentless pursuit of perfection and by getting his teammates to believe in him. He coaches the same way. Our job as leaders is to believe in our people and give them the opportunity to go wherever they want to go.


Give them the credit when they have earned it.
  • Be trustworthy
  • Make decisions
  • Have foresight
  • Encourage the team concept

Harbaugh has cultivated the same strong leadership qualities that he possesses in his contemporary, Alex Smith. In all likelihood, if Harbaugh had not landed the head job in San Francisco, Smith might have bounced around the league for a few more years and not amounted to much. This would not have been for lack of talent, but rather due to the fact that he had been so beaten down by the previous coaching staffs and the national media.

After a while, when people say enough bad things about you, you start to believe it.

Harbaugh gives all the credit to his guys. He once told the media, “Don’t talk to me, talk to the guys. They’re the ones that won the game.”

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain when your people succeed. Everybody wins because you got there together. Their growth and success is your legacy. If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to be successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders, then you can be proud of the rich heritage that you helped to create.

It doesn’t just come from you, we are compilation pieces; collages made from everyone we have ever known. Pieces of our every contact mold us into who we are today. Today’s interactions change what we will be tomorrow. We are the result of a lifetime’s worth of input from all the leadership we have observed, be it positive or negative. Take in everything you are witness to. If we are keen observers of those around us, the learning never stops.


Outstanding coaches are often great simplifiers who can cut through nonsense and doubt to create a solution that everyone can rally around.


The 49ers and their coaching staff in particular are true alchemists. They have taken largely unappreciated talent and transformed it into something extraordinary. There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.



















Continue Reading