The Score Takes Care of Itself is a book leads us through the principles and self-reflections of one of the most successful coaches in NFL history – Bill Walsh of the 49ers. It is an intellectually honest deconstruction of what he believes made him successful, deep introspection of his successes and failures, and an array of coldly efficient, business-like bullet-point conclusions each of his principles.
Even though a basic knowledge of football will help internalize Walsh’s anecdotes, this is a book about leadership and professionalism first, with football a distant second. The title, “The Score Takes Care of Itself” refers to a simple philosophy that if you build a strong culture, the winning will come.
Walsh wasn’t perfect. He exhibited a tremendous ego, severed relationships throughout his tenure, and ultimately burned out as he spiraled into an exhausted depression in his final coaching years. Even in the book, he comes off as difficult to work with, has phases of blatant micromanagement, and is wholly unapologetic in some controversial decisions.
On the flip side, he was immensely introspective and truly cared about the people around him. He was thoughtful about his perception amongst the team and outsiders. He expected excellence from 49ers customer support agents and janitors. His platonic self-ideal was to be the best teacher and grow the people around him.
It is up to the reader to decide for themselves what lessons are applicable to them versus those specific to Walsh’s personality. I believe this book is super valuable to leaders who have seen success doing similar things to Walsh in their own lives (i.e. setting high standards of excellence, decisive decision making, focusing on positive reinforcement) but are looking to round out other parts of their leadership philosophy.
Ultimately, this book was published posthumously as a reader-friendly distillation of his magnum opus in 1997, “Finding the Winning Edge“. That book is no longer published and goes anywhere from $100 to $1000 in the used market. As I dug, I appreciated an ESPN piece from 2013: The book of coach that reflects on Walsh’s perfectionism and angst.
But in 2004, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and the project got derailed. Three years later, when his life was measured in days, not months, one of the last things he told Craig was “Finish this book.” Craig, along with a co-writer, did just that. The Score Takes Care of Itself was 250 pages and hit shelves in 2009. It’s not in every coach’s office. (The book of coach, ESPN 2013)
The book is a quote machine (I had 103 highlights) – and any more would have resulted in highlighting the whole book. That being said, a summary would not do justice to a book already distilled to its core. It would be no better than looking at a bottle fine whiskey as a substitute for drinking a glass. All I can provide are a sampling of some quotes that help me anchor and remember lessons from the book.
On continuous winning
One section later in the book that I believe is a unique experience for Walsh is his introspection on maintaining motivation when you start winning, especially winning big:
More people are more familiar with losing than with winning. Consequently, losing is not that difficult to deal with, in the sense that we’ve all faced it, lived it, and are familiar with the fallout it can produce. We have seen people lose heart, self-destruct, turn on one another, and become disloyal. We know the whole syndrome of losing, but leaders often don’t think very much about the other side of the coin—winning; especially winning big.
This response—being knocked off balance emotionally and mentally—is one of the fundamental reasons it is so difficult to continue winning; it’s true in business as in sports. Repeat winners at the high end of competition are rare, because when success of any magnitude occurs, there is a disorienting change that we are unprepared for. I, too, was somewhat thrown off by our first Super Bowl victory.
When you reach a large goal or finally get to the top, the distractions and new assumptions can be dizzying. First comes heightened confidence, followed quickly by overconfidence, arrogance, and a sense that “we’ve mastered it; we’ve figured it out; we’re golden.” But the gold can tarnish quickly. Mastery requires endless remastery.
In later years, when he won so much that the baseline expectation was nonstop winning:
The pursuit of the prize had become an exercise in avoiding pain; the expectations had become unattainable; the behavior of our owner had become—on occasion—unacceptable; and the responsibilities I took on, coupled with the pressure I put on myself, were unmanageable.
There are a ton of ways Walsh thought about motivating a high performing group of people, here are some tidbits.
Few things offer greater return on less investment than praise—offering credit to someone in your organization who has stepped up and done the job.
The most powerful way to do this is by having the courage to say, “I believe in you,” in whatever words and way are comfortable for you. These four words—or their equivalents—constitute the most inspirational message a leader can convey.
And always keep this in mind: Nobody will ever come back to you later and say “thank you” for expecting too little of them.
When the bottom 20 percent is dissatisfied—doesn’t feel they’re a real part of your team, that is, appreciated—their comments, perspective, and reactions—their “bitching”—is seen, heard, and absorbed by those who are positive and productive.
On buying time
Walsh didn’t win immediately when he became the 49ers coach, but found ways to buy time to build his foundation.
Positive results—winning—count most. But until those results come through your door, a heavy dose of documentation relating to what you’ve done and what you’re doing, planning to do, and hoping to do may buy you just enough extra time to actually do it.
In planning for a successful future, the past can show you how to get there. Too often we avert our gaze when that past is unpleasant.
In a way, an organization is like an automobile assembly line; it must be first class or the cars that come off it will be second rate. The exceptional assembly line comes first, before the quality car. My Standard of Performance was establishing a better and better “assembly line.” We were becoming a first-class organization in all areas.
It is easy to go for quick wins instead of tackling the hard problems:
Sharpening pencils in lieu of sharpening your organization’s performance is one way to lose your job. […] You use the peripheral stuff as an escape mechanism, rather than tackling what may appear, and indeed may be, unsolvable problems until finally you’re done, finished, sitting there with nothing to show for your leadership efforts but a cup of sharp pencils.