The Score Takes Care of Itself
Lessons on Leadership and on Handling Failure by Bill Walsh
Bill Walsh’s obsession was leading a football team towards his admittedly impossible goal of perfect performance under pressure. His book, The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership, is a firsthand description of Walsh’s philosophy of leadership and the details of how he led the 49ers from defeat to dynasty.
It is based on a series of interviews with Bill Walsh and reviewed by him. Also included are chapters about Walsh’s style as perceived by five men, including Joe Montana, with whom he worked closely in the pressure cooker of professional football.
As an aside, Walsh was also an amateur boxer and a student of military history, from which he derived parts of his philosophy. In the book he describes the pressures of football as being a civilian version of those experienced in combat: “Professional football, in my opinion, is the moral equivalent of war. The stress, wear and tear, and assault on a person’s spirit and basic self-esteem are incredible … it is such a cruel, volatile, and emotionally and physically dangerous activity.” p.1-2.
Though the book can get a bit repetitive and jumpy the content is excellent. I personally enjoyed Walsh’s directness, the many practical insights on “combat team” leadership, and the firsthand details of his life with the 49ers. Below are some direct quotes, often repetitive to emphasize his key points, to help give you an idea of what he had to say to leaders.
Two of Walsh’s primary strengths were
(1) teaching others how to be great, and
(2) preparing & practicing extremely detailed scripts for his team and himself.
His goal was to maximize the chances of perfect performance under pressure in any and all contingencies.
“‘Be Prepared,’ became my modus operandi.” … “I kept asking and answering this question: ‘What do I do if …?'” p.51
To quote Walsh: “I directed our focus less to the prize of victory than to the process of improving — obsessing, perhaps, about the quality of our execution and the content of our thinking; that is, our actions and attitude. I knew if I did that, winning would take care of itself, and when it didn’t I would seek ways to raise our Standard of Performance. p.21
Ancillary Strengths: His mastery of the game of football resulted from “a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.” p.16 Furthermore, Walsh’s problem-solving ability was spectacular. “(1) He could identify problems that needed to be solved; and (2) He could solve them.” p.68
The West Coast Offense is a beautiful example of how Walsh identified and solved a serious personnel problem (i.e., his Bengal’s quarterback, Virgil Carter, could not throw deep with accuracy p.41) and in the process changed the game of football. This novel solution was applied with his aforementioned passion for preparation. To quote Walsh: “Calculated risks are part of what you do, but … I preferred the position of being able to take lower-risk actions with higher reward potential. That sounds like a situation that rarely exists—low risk, high reward—but it’s exactly what my pass-oriented, ball-control system offered on the majority of our plays. In order to make it work, I applied great energy and expertise to a methodical process of anticipating, planning, and practicing for every conceivable situation.” p.211
DEALING WITH FAILURE
It turns out that Walsh was intimately familiar with failure. His first two seasons with the 49ers, for example, had won-loss records of 2-14 and 6-10. p.19 During that period he said “It does take strength to shift your attention off the pain when you feel as though your soul has been stripped bare.” p.9 Also, he states that had he been able to avoid personalizing losses (at the end of his career) and giving himself no credit for wins he “would have continued to coach the 49ers and, I believe, won additional Super Bowl Championships.” p.224 Instead Walsh quit because “I wasn’t thinking straight.” p.224
Perhaps his angst is why he gives us so many lessons in this book on the subject of handling failure. To me these lessons were the most interesting portions of his book.
Always plan for contingencies. This includes planning for failure and how you will recover if a battle goes against you.
* “Victory is not always under your control.” p.1
“However, a resolute and resourceful leader understands that there are a multitude of means to increase the probability of success. And that’s what it all comes down to, namely, intelligently and relentlessly seeking solutions that will increase your chance of prevailing in a competitive environment. When you do that, the score will take care of itself.” p.1
For individuals who prevail “‘Crash and burn’ is part of it; so are recovery and reward. As you’re about to see I experienced more than my share of both.” p.1
– “Do expect defeat … if you’re surprised when it happens, you’re dreaming; dreamers don’t last long.” p.11
– “Force yourself to stop looking backward and dwelling on the … train wreck. … It’s mental quicksand.” p.12
– “When “you’ve been knocked senseless; give yourself a little time to recuperate. A keyword here is ‘little.’ Don’t let it drag on.” p.12
– “Do begin planning for your next serious encounter. The smallest step — plans— move you forward on the road to recovery. Focus on the fix.” p.12
“Failure is part of success, an integral part. Everybody gets knocked down. Knowing it will happen and what you must do when it does is the first step back.” p.10
Work “one minute at a time—literally—to regain composure, confidence and direction.” p.10
Focus on the process of preparing for excellence, not on the score. This is the overall theme of the book.
* “Take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort.” p.16
* “We were immersed in building the inventory of skills, both attitudinal and physical, that would lead to improved execution. That was the key. (The losses hurt, and the wins felt good. But neither was the primary focus of my effort or attention. At least, in the beginning. Unfortunately, that changed for me down the line.) p.21
* “Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize.” p.172
Walsh’s goal was consistency so that even after a loss he would not have to start all over again from the bottom.
* “There’s an ebb and flow, an up and down, in every significant endeavor at every level.” … but “my high standards for actions and attitudes within our organization never wavered—regardless of whether we were winning or losing.” p.27
“I envisioned it as enabling us to establish a near-permanent ‘base camp’ near the summit, consistently close to the top, within striking distance, never falling to the bottom of the mountain and having to start all over again.” p.27
“Consistent effort is a consistent challenge.” p.27.
Luck will always play a part in highly competitive contests. However, planning for all contingencies improves the odds.
* “The final score of a football game is decided, on average, according to the following percentages: 20 percent is due to luck … I accepted the fact that I couldn’t control that 20 percent of each game. However, the rest of it—80 percent—could be under my control with comprehensive planning and preparation.” p.56
“Control what you can control: Let the score take care of itself” p.56
“Planning for foul or fair weather … improves the odds of making a safe landing and is a key to success.” p.57
* “Be prepared. Good luck is a product of good planning.”
“No leader can control the outcome of the contest or competition, but you can control how you prepare for it.” p.85
* “Your ultimate assignment as a leader is getting those on your team totally ready for the battle. After that, you have to let winning take care of itself.” p.234
* “Rather than … try harder and harder … I trusted that it was going to happen because we had prepared thoroughly … The 49ers were able to play the bigger games very well because it was basically business as usual—no ‘try harder’ mentality was used. In fact, I believed it would be counterproductive.” p.30
Learn from mistakes. Don’t back off from the truth.
* “Seek reward in the ruins.” … “Often it takes a keen eye and a strong stomach to dig through the ‘ruins’ of your results meaningful facts.” … “When you fall short of the goal, the letdown can be so severe you’re blinded to substantive information indicating that success may be closer than you would imagine.” “You prevent yourself from searching for the truth hidden within the numbers. I could easily have done that myself, because the second season became absolute hell at times. ” p.62-63
* “Too often we avert our gaze when that past is unpleasant. … How good are you at looking through the evidence from the past—especially the recent past? There’s a certain knack to it, but basically it requires a keen eye for analysis, a commonsense mind for parsing evidence that offers clues to why things went as they did—both good and bad.” p.67
* “When you make a mistake, admit it and fix it. Don’t let pride, stubbornness, or possible embarrassment about your bad decision prevent you from correcting what you have done. Fix it, or the little problem becomes a big one.” p.215
How you win or lose is important and is something you can control.
* “Poise: Even in the worst circumstance, do not unravel mentally or emotionally; continue to fight and execute well, even if the cause appears to be lost; act like professionals.” p.158
* “Thus, if we won, I cared about how we won; if we lost, I cared about how we lost.” … “It wasn’t increasing or decreasing the point differential that was so intriguing to me, but rather increasing the quality of our execution and decision making—the quality of the football we played.” p.189
“In my early years as an assistant coach … simply teaching our personnel how to execute and perform at high levels provided satisfaction and gratification. Seeing areas of our game reflect that improvement allowed me to take pride in various elements of a loss. We hadn’t yet reached the point of being expected to win every game, every Super Bowl.” p.219
Don’t personalize your losses (like Walsh regretfully did at the end).
* “Losing … can become so psychologically crippling that winning offers little solace and no cause for celebration because you’ve imposed an internal accounting system on yourself that awards zero points for winning and minus points for losing. You can never get ahead on points. That’s exactly what happened to me.” p.218
“When this happens, any kind of loss becomes very disturbing because you’ve attached your self-image to the results of the competition. Winning can become insidious for the same reason, that is, you allow the victory to begin determining your self-worth, how you feel about yourself.
Either way, you are putting yourself on a slippery slope when you start believing that the outcome of your effort represents or embodies who you really are as a person—what your value as a person is. I speak from personal experience.” p.219
“Aggressively looking for the positive elements, however small, can dilute the toxic pressure of personalizing the results by allowing you to take pride in your strategies, tactics, effort, and execution even when they don’t produce victory every time.” p.223
“I was increasingly unable to do this. Consequently, during my tenth season with the 49ers, I knew I had to get out … Had I been able to avoid the dead-end calculation of ‘zero points for winning,” I would have continued to coach the 49ers and, I believe, won additional Super Bowl championships. That is something that has never stopped eating at me. But by the end I wasn’t thinking straight.” p.224
Walsh repeatedly recommended focusing on improvement rather than on winning. But, as he frankly stated, thinking too much about winning became a serious personal problem at the end of his career. I.e., “But much of it had to do with our ultimately unattainable expectations and my inability to deal with the prospect of failure. All of it put together became too much.” p.224
* Bud Grant who lost four Super Bowls as coach of the Minnesota Vikings had it right: “I’ve got a 24-hour rule. You only let it bother your for 24 hours and then it’s over.” p.226
These last quotes are from the final chapter written by Bill Walsh’s son, Craig Walsh.
” “While he learned from each loss and every win, my dad increasingly took something away from a defeat that he couldn’t shake.” p.235
” He was also frank about admitting his own mistakes. After a game, at the next meeting, he would review what had gone right and wrong with the whole team. While he didn’t pull any punches when reviewing their individual performances, he was also forthright when it came to his own work. He would tell them where he had made mistakes. … There was no culture of seeking scapegoats, no failure or finger pointing. It was very matter-of-fact. We did this wrong; here’s how we do it right. He would critique himself equally hard in winning and losing, always leaving room for improvement.” p.241
“It is in the framework of this dichotomy, extreme success as a leader in the NFL and extreme distress as a person, that makes Dad’s story so compelling, his lessons in leadership so valuable.” … The lessons he shares in The Score Takes Care of Itself are both a beacon for leadership and a cautionary tale—what to do and what not to do. But isn’t that the subject all effective leaders dwell on? Isn’t it the perpetual puzzle of leadership.” p.241-242
After reading The Score Takes Care of Itself you will certainly have a better idea of who Bill Walsh was as a man and why he was so successful. From the hard-earned lessons provided you will also appreciate the label which Walsh valued most—teacher.