"The Score Takes Care of Itself" exists at the intersection of the two worst genres in all of literature: business and sports. And yet, Bill Walsh's story of how he took the San Francisco 49'ers from being one of the worst teams in the league to three Superbowls in a few short years manages to transcend the typical drivel and self-glorification of these sorts of books. Walsh's perspective is thoughtful and self-aware and he actually changed my mind on a few things about management. I particularly liked his concept of a "Standard of Performance" - as he notes, "People are most comfortable with how they are being treated when their duties are laid out in specific detail and their performance can be gauged by specific metrics. The key is to document — clarify — those expectations." This may sound like a fancy way of describing a normal, boring job description, but if you read his Standard of Performance for the 49'ers, you'll see that it is far more focused on attitude and mindset (emphasis mine):

My Standard of Performance — the values and beliefs within it — guided everything I did in my work at San Francisco and are defined as follows: 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; and make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.

Walsh brought an unusually academic and analytical perspective to football, an approach that made him an outsider for much of his early career. With his constant emphasis on teaching, he was a natural fit as Stanford's football coach before his ascension to the NFL. He also did away with a lot of the macho bullshit that still characterizes many football programs (including the middle school team I played for growing up in Kentucky!), forbidding "the traditional hazing of rookies" and demanding that all "demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does." But Walsh was also uncompromising in his insistence on continual improvement and tracking of results. In a way, he reminded me of David Allen (of "Getting Things Done" notoriety) - as his co-author notes, "Bill Walsh loved lists, viewed them as a road map to results."

I've read a lot of business books and 90% of them are completely useless (see Sturgeon's Law). This is one of the good ones.

My highlights below.


My father, Bill Walsh, was one of the NFL’s pivotal figures, a leader, head coach, and general manager whose innovations changed the way football is played and whose San Francisco 49er dynasty — five Super Bowl championships in fourteen years — ranks among the great achievements in sports history.

Joe Montana was the quarterback whom my father drafted in his first year as head coach at San Francisco. Joe was at the helm for all of the Super Bowl championships coached by my father

FOREWORD - His Standard of Performance (Joe Montana)

That, in my opinion, was his primary leadership asset: his ability to teach people how to think and play at a different and much higher, and, at times, perfect level. He accomplished this in three ways: (1) he had a tremendous knowledge of all aspects of the game and a visionary approach to offense; (2) he brought in a great staff and coaches who knew how to coach, how to complement his own teaching of what we needed to know to rise to his standard of performance; and (3) he taught us to hate mistakes.

We saw his own hunger for perfection, and it was contagious.

Bill just assumed I was supposed to be great and didn’t praise me routinely. The quarterback didn’t get the game ball, didn’t get a load of compliments. Win a Super Bowl? Yes, then you’d get praise from Bill, but otherwise he didn’t believe his starting quarterback needed a lot of praise for doing what he was being paid to do.

Bill didn’t jump on you for a mistake; he came right in with the correction: “Here’s what was wrong; this is how to do it right.” Over and over, without getting all upset, he taught the smallest details of perfecting performance.

Bill’s Final Lecture on Leadership (Steve Jamison)

His office was located on the second floor of an expansive and expensive office complex right next to the exclusive Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club, just two minutes from Stanford University on Sand Hill Road.

Bill was a genius at making the complex comprehensible, the comprehensible achievable.

Bill Walsh held the need to treat individuals within his organization fairly almost sacrosanct (in return, those individuals were expected to consistently work at their most productive level).

Bill Walsh loved lists, viewed them as a road map to results. That may sound simplistic, but I believe it was an important part of his astounding deductive-reasoning ability.

You’d think you were talking to a very successful and focused midlevel corporate executive unless you noticed the picture on the wall of Bill standing next to Joe Montana holding a Super Bowl trophy, or the picture on the other wall of Bill standing next to Joe Montana holding a different Super Bowl trophy.

(I learned recently that Bill had plenty of friends, associates, and a ton of great working relationships but almost no buddies, intimates with whom he could bare his soul.)

PROLOGUE - To Succeed You Must Fail

Almost always, your road to victory goes through a place called “failure.” That reality was present throughout my career, from coaching the Huskies of Washington Union High School in Fremont, California, to the San Francisco 49ers, and all the stops along the way — San Jose State, Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley, the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the San Diego Chargers.

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 takes an individual to the outer limits of his capabilities and may provide one of the ultimate studies of people because it is such a cruel, volatile, and emotionally and physically dangerous activity.

PART I - My Standard of Performance: An Environment of Excellence

“If you’re up at 3 A.M. every night talking into a tape recorder and writing notes on scraps of paper, have a knot in your stomach and a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids, have no appetite or sense of humor, and feel that everything might turn out wrong, then you’re probably doing the job.”

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.

Absorbing and overcoming this kind of punishment engenders a sober, steely toughness that results in a hardened sense of independence and a personal belief that you can take on anything, survive and win.

The competitor who won’t go away, who won’t stay down, has one of the most formidable competitive advantages of all.

For me to do this I had to have autonomy, the power to quickly make decisions in all relevant areas. Team owner Eddie DeBartolo understood this and named me general manager soon after I became head coach. Equally important, he let everyone in the organization know that I was the boss and that he would not undercut my authority.

It began with this fundamental leadership assertion: Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to our team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical (i.e., good talent with bad attitude equals bad talent).

In fact, we had no mission statement on the wall. My mission statement was implanted in the minds of our people through teaching.

A philosophy is the aggregate of your attitudes toward fundamental matters and is derived from a process of consciously thinking about critical issues and developing rational reasons for holding one particular belief or position rather than another.

Your philosophy is the single most important navigational point on your leadership compass.

My Standard of Performance — the values and beliefs within it — guided everything I did in my work at San Francisco and are defined as follows: 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; and make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.

Respect for the emblem was important because it represented something very significant, namely, respect within the organization for one another. I would tolerate no caste systems, no assumption of superiority by any coaches, players, or other personnel.

In keeping with this philosophy, I forbade the traditional hazing of rookies and walk-ons—making them the butt of humiliation or physical punishment.

From the start, my prime directive, the fundamental goal, was the full and total implementation throughout the organization of the actions and attitudes of the Standard of Performance I described earlier. This was radical in the sense that winning is the usual prime directive in professional football and most businesses.

During this early period I began hiring personnel with four characteristics I value most highly: talent, character, functional intelligence (beyond basic intelligence, the ability to think on your feet, quickly and spontaneously), and an eagerness to adopt my way of doing things, my philosophy.

“I couldn’t let my buddies down,” is what all soldiers say.

The leader’s job is to facilitate a battlefield-like sense of camaraderie among his or her personnel, an environment for people to find a way to bond together, to care about one another and the work they do, to feel the connection and extension so necessary for great results. Ultimately, it’s the strongest bond of all, even stronger than money.

The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.

Before you can win the fight, you’ve got to be in the fight.

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.

Start with a comprehensive recognition of, reverence for, and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.

Let all know that you expect them to possess the highest level of expertise in their area of responsibility.

The key to performing under pressure at the highest possible level, regardless of circumstance, is preparation in the context of your Standard of Performance and a thorough assimilation by your organization of the actions and attitudes contained within your philosophy of leadership.

PART II - Success Is Not Spelled G-E-N-I-U-S: Innovation, Planning, and Common Sense

Putting the tight end in motion caught on quickly around the NFL because it created new problems for the defense. Soon every team in the league had added it to their playbook. And it all started with a botched play.

(The width of a football field is much greater than most fans appreciate—- 53.3 yards. I used all of that width, slightly less than half the length of an NFL field, in designing plays, thus turning the approximately 15 yards of depth—Virgil’s most effective range—and 53.3 yards of width into a wide-open war zone being hit not by long bombs but short ones. At least, that was the plan.)

Additionally, what Howard and many others missed in the early days was that 60 percent of the yardage on our pass plays came through running after the catch.

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.

Scripting was a most effective leadership tool in fair and foul weather.

What is the width and depth of the intellect you have applied to your own team’s contingency planning? What is the extent of your own “scripting”? What could happen tomorrow, next week, or next year that you haven’t planned for, aren’t ready to deal with, or have put in the category of “I’ll worry about that when the time comes”? Planning for the future shouldn’t be postponed until the future arrives.

When you’re forced to go to some version of a “Hail Mary pass” on a recurring basis, you haven’t done your job.

Bill was smart enough, strong-willed enough, to get rid of talented people if they were contributors to a negative organizational culture — not team players.

Bill forced us to think at a higher level, which was the starting point for getting players to play at a higher level and the organization to operate at a higher level. That was his total focus, like an obsession. All he talked about was improvement. And he knew how to teach improvement.

PART III - Fundamentals of Leadership: Concepts, Conceits, and Conclusions

The tyrant still exists in leadership, in both sports and business, but is in retreat. The strong-willed personality, however, is not disappearing anywhere anytime soon, whether in sports, nonprofits, or corporate America. The leader who will not be denied, who has expertise coupled with strength of will, is going to prevail.

In my years as a head coach, I wanted a democratic-style organization with input and communication and freedom of expression, even opinions that were at great variance with my ideas. But only up to a point. When it was time for a decision, that decision would be made by me according to dictates having to do with one thing only, namely, making the team better.

And once the decision was made, the discussion was over. My ultimate job, and yours, is not to give an opinion. Everybody’s got an opinion. Leaders are paid to make a decision. The difference between offering an opinion and making a decision is the difference between working for the leader and being the leader.

One of the great leadership challenges is to recognize when hubris has you in its grip before it is too late to change.

Good logic, sound principles, and strong belief are the purest and most productive reasons for pushing forward when things get rough.

When you fall prey to the naysayers who eagerly provide you with all the reasons why you won’t succeed, why you can’t win, and why you should quit, you have lost the winner’s edge. When that happens, the game is over, regardless of your profession.

Excuse making is contagious. Answerability starts with you. If you make excuses — which is first cousin to “alibiing” — so will those around you. Your organization will soon be filled with finger-pointing individuals whose battle cry is, “It’s his fault, not mine!”

Be firm. I would not budge one inch on my core values, standards, and principles.

Believe in yourself. To a large degree, a leader must “sell” himself to the team. This is impossible unless you exhibit self-confidence.

Of course, belief derives from expertise.

Here are ten additional nails you can pound into your professional coffin: 1. Exhibit patience, paralyzing patience. 2. Engage in delegating—massive delegating—or conversely, engage in too little delegating. 3. Act in a tedious, overly cautious manner. 4. Become best buddies with certain employees. 5. Spend excessive amounts of time socializing with superiors or subordinates. 6. Fail to continue hard-nosed performance evaluations of longtime—“tenured”—staff members, the ones most likely to go on cruise control, to relax. 7. Fail to actively participate in efforts to appraise and acquire new hires. 8. Trust others to carry out your fundamental duties. 9. Find ways to get out from under the responsibilities of your position, to move accountability from yourself to others — the blame game. 10. Promote an organizational environment that is comfortable and laid-back in the misbelief that the workplace should be fun, lighthearted, and free from appropriate levels of tension and urgency.

To put it in a more personal way, if your staff doesn’t seem fully mobilized and energized until you enter the room, if they require your presence to carry on at the level of effort and excellence you have tried to install, your leadership has not percolated down.

This is a reliable indication of an effective leader, namely, one who creates a self-sustaining organization able to operate at the highest levels even when he or she leaves.

A strong company that goes south after the CEO retires is a company whose recently departed CEO didn’t finish the job. If everything goes great when you’re around but slows or stops in its tracks when you’re not there, you are not fulfilling your responsibilities.

I generally preferred the opposite approach in characterizing the other team and its players. To me they were objects that were both faceless and nameless: Nameless, Faceless Objects. My logic was that I wanted our focus directed at one thing only: going about our business in an intensely efficient and professional manner—first on the practice field, later on the playing field.

Having said that, I also recognized that a leader needs a very hard edge inside; it has to lurk in there somewhere and come out on occasion. You must be able to make and carry out harsh and, at times, ruthless decisions in a manner that is fast, firm, and fair.

The great leaders in sports, business, and life always have the most powerful and positive inner voice talking to them, which they, in turn, share with and teach to their organization. The specifics of that inner voice varies from leader to leader, but I believe all have these four messages in common: 1. We can win if we work smart enough and hard enough. 2. We can win if we put the good of the group ahead of our own personal interests. 3. We can win if we improve. And there is always room for improvement. 4. I know what is required for us to win. I will show you what it is.

Joe Montana’s leadership was grounded in this key characteristic: Despite the fact that he was the starting quarterback, with all of the trappings that come with that position, he never played favorites or believed that a person’s reputation, status, or credentials entitled him to special treatment.

He could become almost trancelike at times of heightened pressure. This accounted for the amazing thirty-one fourth-quarter comebacks he engineered during his NFL career. Equally impressive — perhaps more so — is the fact that in four Super Bowl games he never threw a single interception.

Avoid pleading with players to “get going” or trying to relate to them by adopting their vernacular. Strong leaders don’t plead with individuals to perform.

Make each person in your employ very aware that his or her well-being has a high priority with the organization and that the well-being of the organization must be his or her highest professional priority.

In his “Letter of Instruction Number 1” (from War As I Knew It), which was written for officers under his command in the U.S. Third Army, Patton offered six key dictates. You should evaluate each one and determine whether you can utilize it in your own “command.” 1. Remember that praise is more valuable than blame. Remember, too, that your primary mission as a leader is to see with your own eyes and be seen by your own troops while engaged in personal reconnaissance. 2. Use every means before and after combat to tell troops what they are going to do and what they have done. 3. Discipline is based on pride in the profession of arms, on meticulous attention to details, and on mutual respect and confidence. Discipline must be a habit so ingrained that it is stronger than the excitement of battle or the fear of death. 4. Officers must assert themselves by example and by voice. They must be preeminent in courage, deportment and dress. 5. General officers must be seen in the front line during action. 6. There is a tendency for the chain of command to overload junior officers by excessive requirements in the way of training and reports. You will alleviate this burden by eliminating non-essential demands.

I learned soon enough that an inflated label like “Genius,” or any other form of hyperbole, comes with a big downside — that buying into what people say about you can create both external and internal problems, making your life and job a lot tougher than they already are. It happened very soon for me.

You demonstrate a lack of assuredness when you talk constantly in negatives.

Vince Lombardi had a similar appreciation for the benefits of direct — specific — communication. Supposedly, he started each season’s training camp by assembling the team and announcing, as he held it over his head, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Among many other things, at least once a week each coach spent his lunch hour in the locker room with the team. Eating a tuna fish sandwich and drinking a Pepsi next to players was an unassuming way to break down barriers and facilitate organizational familiarity, which facilitates better interaction. Your can also learn a lot while eating your sandwich.

Be a King Without a Crown

Of course, the little “issue” that had set him off — for example, a pass that he declared not crisp — was often an excuse to fix the larger concern, which was usually the level, or lack thereof, of intensity, energy, and attention.

Leadership, at its best, is exactly that: teaching skills, attitudes, and goals (yes, goals are both defined and taught) to individuals who are part of your organization.

I came to understand over my years as an assistant coach that when the audience is bored, it’s not their fault. And when they’re plugged in and excited, it’s because of you, the person in charge.

Starting day one as head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh came in and started cleaning out the building of people — fired everybody that he could fire, like assistant coaches, staff, and office personnel.

Those staff meetings were really something, because it was apparent he knew exactly, precisely, what he wanted to do, which included exactly what he wanted us to do.

PART IV - Essentials of a Winning Team: People, Priorities, and Performance

My checklist of personal qualities — assets — in potential staff members: 1. A fundamental knowledge of the area he or she has been hired to manage. You may think this is so self-evident it’s insulting to include. However, often we are tempted to hire simply on the basis of friendship or other user-friendly characteristics. They can be important. Expertise is more important. 2. A relatively high—but not manic—level of energy and enthusiasm and a personality that is upbeat, motivated, and animated. Groups will often collectively take on the personality of their department head (e.g., in football, their position coach). A negative, complaining staff member will be emulated by those he or she is in charge of. So will a positive go-getter. 3. The ability to discern talent in potential employees whom he or she will recommend to you. 4. An ability to communicate in a relaxed yet authoritative — but not authoritarian — manner. 5. Unconditional loyalty to both you and other staff members. If your staff members are chipping away at one another, the organization is weakened from within—like a tree full of termites. There is, in my view, no offense more serious than disloyalty.

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.

The second-richest man in America, Warren Buffett, says one of his biggest challenges is to help his top people — all wealthy beyond belief — stay interested enough to jump out of bed in the morning and work with all the enthusiasm they did when they were poor and just getting started.

Never fall prey to the belief that getting to the top makes everything easy. In fact, what it makes easier is the job of motivating those who want your spot at the top. Achievement, great success, puts a big bull’s-eye on your back. You are now the target—clearly identified—for all your competitors to aim at.

This is always the way to win, the road to a goal even more elusive than success; namely, consistent success.

Commitment and sacrifice are among the personal characteristics I value most highly in people.

When you bring a “Ronnie Lott” into your organization, you are actually bringing several “Ronnie Lotts” aboard, because they create others in their own image.

Frankly, I care a lot more about how we lose than if we lose. Gentlemen, in the second half you’re going to find out something important; you’re about to find out who you are. And you may not like what you find.”

Your competitor must never look at you across the field, conference table, or anywhere else and conclude, “I not only beat you, I broke your spirit.” The dance of the doomed tells them they’ve broken your spirit. That message can hurt you the next time around.

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.

The best leaders are those who understand the levels of energy and focus available within their team. They also recognize which situations require extreme effort and which do not. Knowing the difference ensures that your organization is fresh and fully able to perform at its uppermost levels when it’s necessary.

It’s a maxim that one enemy can do more damage than the good of a hundred friends. I believe it’s true and worth remembering the next time you get upset with someone and mutter, “I’ll fix that so-and-so.” While you’re getting even, they’re getting ahead.

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.

One of the game’s great innovators, Paul Brown was the first (or among the first in some cases) to use IQ tests to evaluate players, establish a game film “library” and studiously analyze the footage, teach players in a formal classroom setting, send in plays from the sideline with “messenger” linemen, fit helmets with face masks,

Ralph Waldo Emerson described a great and creative person as one who “finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries. Thus all originality is relative. Every thinker is retrospective.”

PART V - Thin Skin, Baloney, and “The Star-Spangled Banner”: Looking for Lessons in My Mirror

Among other things, I knew the example I set as head coach would be what others in the organization would recognize as the standard they needed to match

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 organization — player, assistant coach, trainer, staff member, groundskeeper, or anyone else — who could accurately say he or she out-worked me. Not one. I can state that with no fear of contradiction. Some worked as hard — nobody worked harder.

Over the years, I’ve heard many theories, often complex or convoluted, on what it takes to be an outstanding leader. Most of the theories seem to take a monumental work ethic for granted, as if it is assumed or something, as if people automatically know what it is and do it. I didn’t assume it. The majority of people out there don’t know what it is. They need to be shown, and you’re the one who must show it.

People are most comfortable with how they are being treated when their duties are laid out in specific detail and their performance can be gauged by specific metrics. The key is to document — clarify — those expectations.

Football coaches, just like executives who push themselves to the brink and beyond, often have no support system and become isolated from family, friends, and normal interactions. I’ve described it as being in a submarine, submerged and cut off from the human race.