Book Review by Dan Coughlin

The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership

(Portfolio, 2009) by Bill Walsh with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh

Value for the reader:

The reader will walk away with an extraordinary amount of practical, proven advice on how to lead individuals and manage a group to achieve amazing results. In case you are not familiar with the late Bill Walsh, he was the head football coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 -1989.

During those ten years he took over the worst team in the National Football League, and one of the worst teams in the history of the league, and went on to win three Super Bowl championships. In the process he had created an organization that went on to win two more Super Bowls in the six years following his retirement. Best-selling leadership author Steve Jamison was subsequently chosen by Walsh to present his philosophy of leadership in printed form for a business audience. Throughout the book, Bill Walsh explains with trenchant honesty both what was effective and what was not effective in his approach to teambuilding, management, and leadership.

This is one of the most powerful books I’ve read on leadership and management in terms of providing a comprehensive approach both in terms of breadth and depth of real-life situations. It reminds me very much of the most powerful book I’ve ever read on leadership, which is The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson.

Strengths of the Book:

The greatest strength of this book is the very direct way that Bill Walsh gives advice to the reader on how to handle specific aspects of leadership and management.

I define a manager as the person responsible for the results of a group effort. I define leadership as influencing how other people think in ways that generate better sustainable results both for the organization and the people in it.

Here are a variety of topics from The Score Takes Care of Itself on how managers and leaders can generate extraordinary group performances:

  • Establish in very specific terms your Standard of Performance that you expect your employees and yourself to act in accordance with. Before he became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh wrote down 17 statements that comprised his Standard of Performance. Here are the first four:
    1. Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.
    2. Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does.
    3. Be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise.
    4. Demonstrate character.

    I encourage you to carefully study these 17 statements from Bill Walsh that are in the book. Read them over and over. Then carefully begin to write down your expected Standard of Performance both for yourself and your employees. Bill Walsh made it VERY clear to every player, coach, and employee within the San Francisco 49ers organization that they were expected to act in accordance with his Standard of Performance. Even though his team only won eight games total in the first two years, behaviors and attitudes were beginning to dramatically improve and that led directly to a Super Bowl championship in his third year.

  • He explains over and over that his primary focus was not on winning games, but rather on getting everyone, including himself, to live up to his Standard of Performance. He had created 17 standards, communicated them very clearly, held people accountable for acting in accordance with them, and believed wholeheartedly that if everyone continued to do the right things within those 17 guiding principles that the wins would eventually come. And that is exactly what happened.
  • Throughout the book, Bill Walsh makes it very clear that the road to generating great group performances is filled with pain and hardship. He never glosses over the intense pain he went through during his career, and particularly during his 10 years as the head coach of the 49ers.
  • He explains how two of his most innovative approaches were actually the byproduct of dealing with difficult circumstances. He may be best known for what came to be called “the West Coast offense,” which really should be called “the Bill Walsh offense.” He had a quarterback in Cincinnati who had a rather weak arm, but who could throw quick short passes. So Walsh built an offensive scheme around this quarterback. No one else in the history of football had done this before. He also scripted his plays before the game started. That way he and the players knew the offensive plays they would start the game with and which ones they would use in certain situations. Rather than trying to think of a play in the middle of a pressure-filled situation, Walsh had thought through the situations long before the game started and practiced them over and over with his team. These two powerful examples have tremendous implications for business managers. They need to build their approach to the marketplace around the strengths and passions of the employees they have, not the ones they wish they had. And they need to think through business situations long before they occur and determine a variety of approaches they can turn to when those situations arise.
  • Focus on things that matter the most. Walsh talks about unsuccessful coaches who sweated over minute details that had nothing to do with improving performance on or off the field. He explains how managers have to be careful in selecting the things they are going to concentrate on. Otherwise a manager can use up a great deal of time and energy and not improve performance where it matters the most.
  • Throughout the book, Walsh explains his approach to talent management: who to hire and who to fire, how to develop the people under his supervision, and how to be honest with each person about the person’s future with the 49ers organization.
  • Some of my favorite sections of the book revolved around Walsh’s passion and talent for teaching and explaining what to do and how to do it. I really enjoyed his explanation of how to teach new offensive plays to a group of football players who had sat through endless meetings in the past. He talked about the importance of absolutely believing in what he was teaching the players on how to run a certain play and the importance of teaching with enthusiasm and animation.
  • Particularly toward the end of the book there were long explanations from Walsh on what he felt he did wrong and encouragement from him to the reader on not making the same mistakes. For example, he explained that he preached the importance of delegating responsibilities to other people and not associating results with your value as a person. However, he goes on to say that he personally did a very poor job in those two areas. He says that while he had excellent assistant coaches reporting to him he ended up doing most of the actual coaching, particularly on the offensive side of the game. In perhaps the most gripping part of the book, he talks about how his career was ended because he never gave himself positive points for a win and always gave himself negative points for a loss. In the final chapter, his son, Craig, explains how these two characteristics came to have a dramatic negative effect on his father despite all the things he admired greatly about him.
  • The final strength of the book was the series of interviews and insights Steve Jamison garnered from people who knew Bill Walsh very well as a football coach. These insights help the reader develop an even more complete picture of Bill Walsh’s strengths as a leader and a manager.

What would have made this book better?

My recommendations are quite limited because I really believe this is a very valuable book. I have a hard time imagining anyone not benefitting from the advice Bill Walsh offered after a lifetime of working with groups to achieve great results. Even when I felt the book was getting a little long, I continued to find more and more value from it as I kept reading. It’s like digging in a vein of leadership gold. It continued to surprise me how much “gold” there was from beginning to end.

Having said that here are three suggestions that I think would have made the book a bit better:

  • On page 16 are the seventeen statements that make up Bill Walsh’s Standard of Performance. This is the critical foundation for the rest of the book. However, they are not highlighted in bold or visually set apart in any way from the rest of the paragraphs. I really think it would have added value to the reader if a memorable graphic had been created with those seventeen statements in it.

    For example, Steve Jamison writes a great deal with and about John Wooden, the tremendous UCLA basketball coach. One of John Wooden’s most famous contributions to readers is his Pyramid of Success, which provides both a visual icon as well as incredible content. Bill Walsh’s Standard of Performance has really useful content, and I think it would be even more memorable if it had been crafted into a powerful visual. I simply rewrote the 17 statements inside the front cover so that I can refer to them easily in the future.

  • This next suggestion may or may not be a recommendation for improving the book. Either way I found it to be somewhat jarring as I read the book. Roughly every 25 pages Bill Walsh would essentially describe himself as being brilliant without coming right out and saying he is brilliant. Most of the book he is simply teaching ideas and providing great examples, but then almost out of nowhere he pats himself on the book in what I thought was an overdone fashion. I suppose turning a terrible team into a five-time Super Bowl champion does allow the author to be rather self-congratulatory, but at times it felt to me to be out of place.
  • My only other suggestion involves a great deal of honesty from Bill Walsh about other people, which at times I felt was unnecessarily blunt. A few times in the book he named names when describing really atrocious and destructive behavior by other people. I think his examples would have still been just as powerful without having to call out an individual’s name in such a public manner.

    In the end, I highly recommend that you read The Score Takes of Itself. Not only do I agree with the title, I found the tremendous array of practical insights on leadership and management to be very valuable for anyone who wants to improve the results of a group effort.