Bill Walsh was the head coach and general manager of the San Fransisco 49ers American football team. He took over the 49ers as one of the worst teams in American football history and transformed the whole organization into a system that resulted in three Super Bowls (1981, 1984, 1988) and made the 49ers the best NFL team of the 1980s.
Steve Jamison, the author of several best-selling leadership books, approached Walsh after his prime with the 49ers to document his leadership philosophy and principles which made his spectacular results possible.
They started to work on The Score Takes Care of Itself during a time when Bill Walsh was already holding popular seminars about leadership at Stanford Graduate School of Business. The cooperation stopped with Welsh’s comeback to NFL and the book never got finished in his lifetime.
After Walsh passed away Jamison and Welsh’s son, Craig finished the work they started years earlier. The book was published after 2007 but largely in Welsh’s words.
The Score Takes Care of Itself is the personal map for success for one of the most creative and successful NFL coaches whether in professional football or anywhere else. It’s not just about leadership, efficiency, and processes. It’s about how to treat people right and how to build a culture where results can be accomplished as a byproduct.
Bill Walsh is not just writing about values and ways of working. He implemented his principles and succeeded with it in one of the most competitive leagues on the planet.
I find The Score Takes Care of Itself as one of the most practical books about how to accomplish great things without giving up our values.
If you find the book interesting based on this short intro and want to read it, then I suggest you stop here. In the following part of the summary, I share lists, bits of advice, and principles. These are however invaluable but can ruin the reading experience if you have not read the book yet.
Lists are the road to success
Bill Walsh had lists for everything which was part of the way he simplified complex processes into easy-to-digest actionable to-dos. In the book, we can read about his most important lists like his famous Standard of Performance or character traits he was looking for in a player.
I attach the lists without modification:
Standard of Performance
There is a continuous up and down nature of competitive sports. Especially early on it is hard to justify the invested work when the results are not favorable.
Bill Walsh solved this challenge by introducing the Standard of Performance, a point of reference, a solid ground the team could fall back on.
Focusing on these principles instead of the outcome the 49ers could play every match as business as usual instead of try-hard battles. The Standard of Performance made it possible for the 49ers to win the bigger games.
Here is the list of values and believes which guided the work of Bill Walsh with the 49ers:
- Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement;
- demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does;
- be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise;
- be fair;
- demonstrate character;
- honor the direct connection between details and improvement, and relentlessly seek the latter;
- show self-control, especially where it counts most—under pressure;
- demonstrate and prize loyalty;
- use positive language and have a positive attitude;
- take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort;
- be willing to go the extra distance for the organization;
- deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation (don’t get crazy with victory nor dysfunctional with loss);
- promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress);
- seek poise in myself and those I lead; put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own;
- maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; koncentráció
- and make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.
The Five Don’ts of Bill Walsh:
Hardships are part of every road worth taking.
Besides the Standard of Performance, Bill Walsh had a list to overcome adversities, beat victim mentality and do great work no matter the circumstances.
- Don’t ask, “Why me?”
- Don’t expect sympathy.
- Don’t bellyache.
- Don’t keep accepting condolences.
- Don’t blame others.
The List of Takeaways
There are several lessons we can learn from The Score Takes Care of Itself. Here is the list of thoughts that had a great influence on me and potentially can be valuable to you:
- Do expect defeat: Defeat is part of the game. Expect it, learn to deal with it, overcome it.
- Mission in the mind: The 49ers did not have a mission statement on the wall or a well-sounding sentence as a tattoo. Bill Walsh created a mission statement and implemented it in everyone’s mind.
- Uplifting expectations: When you know that others expect a lot from you, you grow up to the task.
- About cruel but necessary moves: Bill Walsh created a culture around performance and strict values. To be faithful to these values, he had to make difficult decisions. When players were past their peak performance, Walsh had to take them out of the organization. It was always a cruel but necessary move.
- Raising the self-image: First, you have to believe in yourself before you try to achieve anything. That’s where Coach Walsh started the work with the 49ers. He improved their self-image despite losing games.
- Unused assets: Desperation should not drive innovation. Everyone should focus first on the basics. Bill Walsh even had a question pinned as a reminder post-it note about this thought: “What assets do we have right now that we’re not taking advantage of?”
- What Got You Here Won't Get You There: We find comfort in what worked before and cling to it even if it does not help us anymore. Do not resist the new, the unconventional. They are the necessary elements of growth.
- Next-level thinking: One of the most often mentioned comments about Bill Walsh from his players was that he forced them to think on another level. He expected players to coach their teammates, help their fellow players in the same position and think about the long-term. He elevated the performance of players, the culture of the organization, and the later career of his players (several of his players became NFL coaches).
- About decisions: Bill Walsh was open-minded and took a great interest in listening to advice and feedback. But he was also stubborn and maybe this was a key to his game-changing decisions: He collected every necessary information beforehand, but always he made the choice. As he said: “A leader must have a vision, which is simply an elevated word for “goal.””
- Walk the walk: If you walk the talk you don't have to talk the talk.
- Chain of negatives: It would have been hard to deal with the continuous criticism of Bill Walsh but he was aware of his maximalism and used an interesting trick to counter it. After negative feedback, he always tried to tell something uplifting to avoid a chain of negatives.
- Work does not count as a result: Walsh went against the popular saying which says that participation matters more than winning. He cites the legendary basketball coach, John Wooden on this: “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”
- The fundamentals are always worth practicing: Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, two accomplished players of Welsh were practicing the fundamentals of football even at the last stage of their careers. They knew the direct correlation between mastering the fundamentals and achieving their potential. It’s never silly to get back to the basics.
- Find the right method, not necessarily your method: Another quote from John Wooden says “Be more concerned with finding the right way than in having it your way.”
- Fair play and team spirit: Your reputation of treating people right can have a much bigger effect than you might think. In the case of the 49ers employees have chosen to stay despite more lucrative offers, and new players found the 49ers offer more appealing because of the image of the organization. They were not mercenaries. They were a team.
- Think of copycats as a compliment: Bill Walsh has the nickname of “The Genius” for working out innovative ways of calling plays. He believed there is no bigger compliment than creating something new and watching others implement it.
However, The Score Takes Care of Itself was published with the subtitle “My Philosophy of Leadership” I get so much more out of this book than some leadership lessons.
I learned why it is worth thinking deeply about designing effective systems. I read about how to strive for more without sacrificing the present, and how to stay true to my values no matter the short-term downsides.
I strongly recommend reading The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh.