Book Review: The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

This great book on leadership comes with some of the best advice and principles I've read and a built-in cautionary tale.

Book Review: The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

Issue No. 10

This is a project by Jeremy Brown. I write about topics that I care about, such as building high performing teams that make great products, culture, leadership and technology.
As I'm building this newsletter (and a podcast and YouTube channel) in the open, you will get updates on this project here from time to time.

I've settled on writing these newsletters on a Sunday evening and shipping them on a Monday morning. This rhythm suits me better than trying to send the newsletter out on the weekend. And Sunday evenings writing sure beats ending the weekend as a vegetable watching something on the TV.

That said, this week's newsletter is coming to you a day late because I took a long weekend off with my family.

It's the holiday season, some of you might already be off, and I hope the rest of you have some downtime planned with your friends and loved ones.

I love to read on holiday. So when we go away on holiday, I always try to have some time for myself to read (increasingly hard with a three-year-old!).

This week I wanted to recommend one of the best books on leadership that I've read. It comes with some of the best advice and principles I've read and a built-in cautionary tale, which I'll get to at the end.

Setting the Standard of Leadership

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh [this is an Amazon Affiliate link, think of it like a tip for me that costs you nothing to use].

Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business: You start first with a structural format and basic philosophy and then find the people who can implement it. – Bill Walsh

I know nothing about American football, yet I got so much out of this book. Bill Walsh took the 49ers from being the worst team in American football to the Super Bowl (the biggest event of the year) in less than three years. This book is jam-packed with relatable stories of Bill's successes and failures.

This book sets the standard for what leadership is all about by someone who "introduced twenty-first-century playmaking and management in the NFL two decades before the new century arrived – starting in 1979."

Bill's Secret

What was the secret to Bill's success? The core of Bill's approach was to teach what he called the Standard of Performance. I've touched on this already in my post on "How to grow a Manager of Managers?". I'm sure I will come back to this again and again in my career and writing.

Bill's Standard of Performance was comprehensive: From how the receptionists should answer the phone. What skills a player needs to master for each position. How players were to hold the ball. His standard included where each player had to be on a play, down to the inch.

Bill believed that "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".

By maintaining your Standard of Performance, success will take care of itself, whatever it is for you.

Establishing your standard of performance screenshot from the book
Establishing your standard of performance screenshot from the book

Bill's flaw, a cautionary tale

I admire Bill deeply. He was a man of character whose values, standards and principles drove him.

This book also gives you glimpses into the man underneath. The torment underneath. He needed to prove himself and discredit the naysayers. But, he had a chip on his shoulder or a monkey on his back that he couldn't shift.

He also sacrificed all of himself for his craft.

During my years as head coach both at Stanford University and with the San Francisco 49ers, I believe it is safe to say there was no single individual in the organisation - player, assistant coach, trainer, staff member, groundskeeper, or anyone else - who could accurately say they outworked me. Not on. I can state that with no fear of contradiction. Some worked as hard - nobody worked harder.

In the book, his son, Craig Walsh, writes:

His ability to do that [getting his team ready for battle] contributed to his success; his inability to do that, increasing as the years went by, forced him to leave the game as an NFL head coach.


By the sixth and seventh year of his decade as head coach with the 49ers, he was showing the price being paid emotionally. [...] his mind-set was not what you'd expect. Late at night, we would sit there in that hot tub. Father and son. If the 49ers had won their game that afternoon at Candlestick Park, he would have a sort of blank look on his face; if they had lost the game that afternoon, he'd have the same blank look. I kidded him about it once. He said ruefully, "This is what happens to a man, Craig" He wasn't talking about fatigue from a day's work. I felt bad for him.

The lessons Bill shares in this book are some of the best you will read on leadership, and the book also tells a cautionary tale - what to do and what not to do.

I want to be like Bill, just not entirely. I have the same tendencies of overwork and obsession as he had. This book reminded me that I do not want my son writing this about me after I'm gone.

If you find yourself staring into the distance with a blank look on your face feeling numb to the moment, I strongly encourage you to seek help.

Bonus: Be a Leader - Bill's Twelve Habits Plus One

A defining characteristic of a good leader is the conviction that they can make a positive difference - can prevail even when the odds are stacked against them. A successful leader is not easily swayed from this self-belief. But it happens.
In addition to expertise and knowledge of the specific competitive environment, I believe a leader must also have certain habits that contribute to their effectiveness, that create and cement their winner's edge. In my view, a truly effective leader must be certain things.

Here are Bill's thirteen habits for leaders.

  1. Be yourself.
  2. Be committed to excellence.
  3. Be positive.
  4. Be prepared. (Good luck is a product of good planning.)
  5. Be detail-oriented.
  6. Be organised.
  7. Be accountable.
  8. Be near-sighted and far-sighted.
  9. Be fair.
  10. Be firm.
  11. Be flexible.
  12. Believe in yourself.
  13. Be a leader.

See pages 84-87 of the book for more details.

In Conclusion

The Score Takes Care of Itself is not a once-and-done book. You can revisit its pages time and again. I find myself going back to various sections. I plan to re-read it regularly and incorporate Bill's lessons into my leadership style.

Leaders should try to be like Bill, just not completely.

Take care of yourself folks! Have a great week!

Jeremy (he/him)

Don't ignore your dreams, don't work too much, say what you think, cultivate friendships, and be happy.

PS If this book is not your cup of tea. I highly recommend O Jerusalem! by Larry Collins [another Amazon Affiliate link] for a riveting read about the birth of the state of Israel.

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