Bill Walsh - The Score Takes Care of Itself
We’ll will continue along the topic of productivity in this post, in a way. But alongside the GTD methodology we discussed last time, which focused more on administration, we’ll now add an attitude and a pattern of behavior. Our role model will be American football coach and manager Bill Walsh, who turned the San Francisco 49ers from one of the worst teams in the world into five-time world champions. In The Score Takes Care of Itself, we can read his personal lessons – sometimes painfully learned – about what it means to be a leader and how we can apply these lessons to our own lives. We don’t have to lead the masses to lead ourselves more effectively with the right philosophy, after all.
We get the gist right in the foreword: victory is never guaranteed, only the odds can be increased; and to increase the odds, we need to focus on performance rather than outcome. The title itself is really the most succinct summary of the author’s philosophy in a phrase he often repeats: if you do everything important with precision, “the score will take case of itself”. That’s twice already that I’ve written it down, and there are many more repetitions to come, so you’d better be prepared!
Because of the memoir nature of the book, the topics were quite scattered, so I have taken the liberty of reorganizing the structure of this summary a little. The following sections will therefore answer the following questions:
- What performance is expected?
- How does a good leader achieve it?
- How do we adapt to reality?
- How do we treat people?
- How do we teach effectively?
The standard of performance
Our hero started from an unenviable position: to scrape one of the shittiest football teams in America together and produce some results. The solution was an overall “performance standard” philosophy that deliberately ignored results. There was no target for when there would be visible improvement, let alone wins and championships. But in return, everyone in the organization had to do their job to the highest standards – so that the results would come naturally.
Champions behave like champions before they’re champions.
The most important thing about a leader is his personal philosophy. It is the sum of his attitudes to different things, which he has developed consciously. He is therefore aware of what he chooses, what he chooses it instead of, and why. This in turn gives him a blueprint of what he should do, when, and why. Now that’s what he has to follow!
Bill Walsh’s code of ethics could be summarized as follows:
- A rigorous and intelligently applied work schedule for continuous improvement
- Respect for everyone in the organization and for all work processes
- A deep commitment to learning and teaching
- Fair treatment
- Strong character
- Appreciation for the link between small details and “big picture” progress
- Self-control, most importantly when it really matters – under pressure
- Loyalty and rewarding loyalty
- Positive language and positive attitude
In addition to these, a person should:
- Take pride in the effort, regardless of the outcome
- Be willing to put in extra effort for the good of the organization
- Treat victory and defeat appropriately
- Encourage internal communication
- Strive for elegance
- Put the interests of the team above their own
- Maintain an abnormally high level of concentration, and
- Make sacrifice and commitment the hallmarks of your organization.
He took enforcing the above very seriously, and it came with a lot of little things. These “little things” could be off-game (no smoking in the stadium, tuck in shirts), in-game (exactly where the pass goes to within inches, 4-5 coaching drills per all 30 techniques), or even organization-wide (no rookie hazing, what the receptionist says on the phone, respect our logo). Many of these may seem trivial and insignificant at first glance, but they change the whole environment and attitude. And from then on, the goal was not to win, but “just” to comply with this standard.
It also makes a difference what we measure in the process! For example, the first year after the big changes brought the same win-loss ratio under Walsh’s management, and even the second year was not very rosy. But if we look at more detailed, area by area statistics, we can see the improvement underneath. Walsh just needed more time to build – to use an automotive analogy – a better production line first, which would then enable him to produce better quality cars. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword: just because we reach an arbitrary target doesn’t mean that everything is okay. However, if we analyze objectively and have the stomach to look at our own failures, we can find the way to a brighter future.
Such a philosophy can provide the real baseline. In all walks of life, fluctuations are natural; better one day, then worse the next. During the good, we tends to lose focus, while during the bad we’re already looking for the way out. However, if there is a standard that we follow – well, that doesn’t fluctuate and we can stick to it. In fact, as we said, that’s the only thing we should do. There’s no “Wow, this is a big game, let’s be better” or “Let’s try harder.” We just do what we do and the score takes care of itself.
Just because you say “I’m the boss” doesn’t make you the boss. It’s like a poor person declaring that they are rich now. Er, no. You will – or won’t – be followed by your actions, not by your statements. So here’s a metric ton of suggestions from Walsh for what you can do to make yourself worth following!
First, get your personality in order. Be yourself – don’t imitate others if you don’t have that style. Be organized and accountable, so others can be like that with you. Be fair and decisive. Be clear about your values and then stand up for them. And last but not least, believe in yourself!
Then – before any philosophy or strategy – you need the right work ethic! This is very often considered a given, but it is not. Also, it’s not innate, so you just have to learn to work. As a leader, you show others what 100% means anyway.
The importance of planning ahead cannot be overstated. The more you plan for every eventuality, the more likely you are to be prepared for what’s coming. Look ahead for the short and long term! A lot of the time, whether in management or, say, in Stoic philosophy, the idea of preparing for possible bad things often comes up. But there is also a special emphasis on preparing for the good situations. Under stress, you simply cannot think so clearly, so if you want to have “clear-headed” plans, they must already be in place by then!
Control what you can control; but also recognize that there will be things you cannot control. Be flexible – just because something has worked before doesn’t mean it will work now.
Willpower and an unbroken march towards your goal are essential. You may have a different personality in many ways compared to other “greats”, but not in these.
You can be democratic in your opinion gathering, but the decision is yours. That is what makes you a leader. Everyone has an opinion, but it is the leader who has to decide. That is why it will be difficult to pinpoint when you are wrong. If you listen to others too easily, you are breaking this very point. If you’re too stubborn, however, you may not realize you are wrong until it’s too late. There is no clear answer, but the advice is to look within yourself and know what your reasons are for persisting. It’ll suck to fail if you fail, but at least you’ll have failed for a good reason!
If – or rather when – you make a mistake, own it and correct it before it becomes a bigger problem! And always learn from your mistakes – preferably the first time around.
Know your territory and stand up for it! If you’re missing either half of this – i.e., you don’t know what your territory is, or you know but don’t stand up for it – then you’ll soon have no territory to stand up for.
Pay attention to the details, but only the ones you need to, because it’s easy to get lost in irrelevant details. Identify the little things that really matter in terms of performance, and then focus on those with confidence. Fuck the rest! You’re probably doing them as an “escape” anyway, because they’re easier to control than your real job. But in return, there’s no point…
Have a hard “edge”! Sure, the book mentions that it’s better not to yell at your subordinates like a drill sergeant, but that doesn’t mean that when you have to make a tough decision, you’re not firm and tough. If the star player needs to be cut because they’re too much of a drama queen, cut’em without hesitation!
Be positive and constructive! Even if you criticize, never be only negative!
If you’re growing a garden, you need to pull out the weeds, but flowers will die if all you do is pick weeds. They need sunshine and water.
In communication, strive to be crystal clear! Make your expectations unmistakable, and you’ll have a much better chance of them being met. Avoid hierarchy, communicate directly! And communication doesn’t just work outwards, so listen to others and learn from them. Make sure that your principles “trickle down” to even the lowest levels of the organization. That way, they are not always dependent on your presence and can make their own decisions.
Don’t let the outside world distract you! If you receive justified criticism, learn from it, but then move on. If you get unjust criticism, fuck it. If there’s gossip, shrug it off and concentrate on what you can control.
Don’t let them blow too much smoke up your ass, though! Just as failure shouldn’t be dwelled on – see The War of Art – success shouldn’t be dwelled on either! In fact, even if it doesn’t go to your head, don’t let others get too hung up on it. It may sound good at first to be called a “genius”, but it can just as easily be turned against you if/when you mess up.
It’s not advisable to rely on the element of surprise. Do anything because it has a logical basis; surprise or no surprise. If you want (or need) to rely on a big surprise, it often means that you’re not prepared enough, and you’re just trying to reassure yourself.
The idea that something completely crazy will work just because it’s completely crazy is completely crazy.
Don’t forget to delegate! Even if you feel like you are the best person to do everything, you can’t do it all yourself. If you trust someone’s talents enough to hire them, then let them flourish!
It’s pointless to get into marketing too soon. If you’re selling crap, it doesn’t matter how nicely you package it up. On the other hand: if it’s quality stuff, it’ll practically sell itself.
Adapting to reality
There are many situations in life where things are less than optimal. Or maybe they were, but then something went wrong. Even then, a good leader looks for the opportunity instead of all the pointless whining.
Making lemonade when you’re given lemons is leadership; making lemonade when you don’t have any lemons is great leadership.
Bill Walsh, in developing the West Coast Offense, was really just trying to make lemonade by getting the best out of the players available. It worked so well in the end that it transformed the whole game. Those who tried to cling to the past tooth and nail were beaten by the results.
Success doesn’t care which way you get there. Be brave! Get rid of your fear of change. You don’t have to wait for necessity to drive innovation. You might as well look now to see what you’re not utilizing properly. Make it your obsession to look for the good in the bad, and you’re much more likely to find it.
Of course there will be cases when you can’t fix the mistake in time, or you can’t build a castle out of the big bag of nothing available. The path to all major success is through failure(s); there’s no way around this. But if you count on it, try to look ahead even while it’s happening, and allow yourself only a limited “mourning period”, you can get through it! Tell yourself you will get up, because after the biggest failures, success can come just as suddenly. So start planning your next move instead of expecting sympathy, complaining or blaming others.
Even more surprisingly, success can be as impactful as failure, only then you’ll fail with a smile, not a grimace. Many people at the top believe they are now masters, but being a master requires constant maintenance. Mastery is a process, not a goal, but fresh success makes you believe you’re done. That’s why it’s hard to repeat. The only thing harder than success is consistent success. So when something works, celebrate it in a fitting way, of course. But then make it clear that the party is over and back to business as usual! Don’t let overwhelming applause and praise distract you. Focus instead on the areas of improvement – because there will always be some.
If you fall prey to the consequences of winning, you will soon be dealing with the consequences of losing.
Striving for perfection can cause many sleepless nights – because it’s impossible. But this striving itself is probably the reason you’re ever going to get to 99% in the first place, though, so the pursuit itself is okay… Just be aware that you’ll never “get there”.
What you really need to be careful of is not to accidentally get caught in a spiral where “zero points for winning” but losing is a negative. This is the surest way to burnout, no matter how much you love what you do. And the problem here is not that winning is zero points, but that losing is labeled negative. What do we have to do with defeat? Let it be zero, too! We just do what we do and – everyone in chorus! – the score will take care of itself.
Money talks. Treating people right talks louder.
As a leader, it makes sense to put a lot of emphasis on how to treat the most important part of your organization – people – “properly”. And since the book is very fond of lists, here’s another one:
- Treat them the way you’d want to be treated!
- Find out what they’re good at and what they aren’t good at; and then use this knowledge accordingly!
- Show your commitment to your employees by providing a “good” environment!
- Accept that everyone is unique and has their own needs – not a slave!
- The most talented are often stubborn – prepare accordingly!
- Theoretically, the interest of the individual and the team should be the same – so if there is a real difference, it’s best to explain why as clearly as possible!
- Always let them know exactly what you expect – and how you will measure their performance!
- Always expect a level that is achievable, but still high!
- Help foster a culture of communication where helping others is second only to their work!
Of course, in addition to the above elements, there are also useful nuggets here and there in the text. For example, that an organization will only be as good as the people who work in it. So take responsibility for your employees and choose the characters you work with well! This will pay off, because people who are truly dedicated perform under pressure. Moreover, the best people will have higher expectations of themselves than you would have of them in the first place.
In competitive areas, ego is not as much of a problem, but here too, let’s distinguish between ego and egomania! It is obviously good to have self-confidence, self-esteem and self-assurance. But if it turns into arrogance, self-importance and selfishness, you’re in trouble.
Equal treatment has been mentioned before, but it’s worth looking at it from the perspective of “elevating the lowest” as well as the previous “knocking stars down a peg”. The bottom 20% need to feel equally important; they need to be included, and there shouldn’t be a “second class”! There can – and will – be moments when everyone else’s job depends on their performance. And they will only be properly prepared for these moments if they take themselves seriously, and feel that everyone else also takes them seriously.
It is important to believe in those you lead and to communicate this well. Some of them may believe in themselves by default, but communicate that you believe in them too! Even if you believe they can do something they themselves don’t believe. This might just be the push they need to prove you right.
You have to be able to balance the grind with decompressing. As a leader, you would instinctively and constantly rush at 100%, but deep down you (hopefully) know that physically you can’t. So always make sure you have strategic “slowdowns”!
Of course, no amount of leadership will replace willpower and hard work on the part of your subordinates. You can give someone everything from the best training to physical and mental support, but you can’t actually do it for them.
Walsh also brings up the well-known adage “what goes around comes around”. Expect loyalty, but then put the interests of your subordinates first in exchange! While they’re there, they should give it their all, but if it’s time for them to go, then let them go. Walsh unfortunately experienced the flipside of this first hand when he was not treated this way in a previous position. And while from a strict point of view, it may be in the team’s best interest to keep someone, if you do it by trickery or coercion, you’ll pay for it later anyway.
Finally, remember that humor can sometimes be an effective stress reliever! It shouldn’t be overused, but it shouldn’t be underestimated either.
Focus on teaching
The ability to help the people around me self-actualize their goals underlines the single aspect of my abilities and the label that I value most – teacher.
It all starts with laying down expectations, principles and coping strategies. From there, the bulk of a leader’s job is actually teaching. Planning when, with whom and what to talk about. And, of course, how to say the same things over and over again in a way that still feels fresh – until it “hits home”.
It’s not so much what you say, but how you teach them what to say to themselves inside their own heads. The external voice fades away at the end of the speech, but if you influence their internal voice, the message will be there in their ears all the time. And the inner monologue shouldn’t be influenced (only) by speech, but by example! If you do what you should, suddenly it doesn’t need to be talked about so much.
In retrospect, teaching is Walsh’s real passion; it’s what gives him real satisfaction. But he emphasizes the skill and perseverance that such a level of communication requires. Because it’s not enough that you know something, you have to be able to pass on that knowledge! Teaching is a two-way street, and you can’t deliver the material if the other side isn’t receiving. Be aware, though, that if the audience doesn’t get the message or is bored, it’s mostly the teacher’s fault! But if you really love what you teach, your enthusiasm will become infectious.
As our hero moved up the ranks, he acquired other responsibilities. This was definitely a negative, in that the new responsibilities took away from teaching – which for him was the most important thing. But he still thinks it was all worth doing for the teaching alone.
And just to add to the list of lists, he also gives a number of detailed tips for more effective teaching:
- Use simple, common language and avoid “big words”!
- Be concise – it’s harder to be concise and simple than verbose and complicated!
- Be prepared for the various backgrounds of your audience!
- Be prepared that some people will always be more open to learning than others!
- Listen to the audience’s reactions – know if what you are talking about is “getting through”!
- Emphasize note-taking!
- Make your presentation varied so they don’t fall asleep from monotony!
- Keep your presentation organized and logical!
- Depending on the situation, sometimes work the audience!
- Use visual elements!
- Think of it as an art – the more you learn about teaching itself, the better you will get at it!
The ultimate goal is to make teachers out of your students, too. After all, the most effective way to train newcomers is for veterans to (also) train their own successors. So let there be no bullying and no second-rate “disrespect”; if everyone works together, the whole organization will be better off.
I would like to conclude this post with one “key” lesson per section – in list form, of course:
Focusing on performance standards shows that the journey is indeed more important than the destination. Turns out the Knights Radiant were on to something…
Among the leadership principles, I would highlight adequate preparation. Neither good nor bad contingencies can throw you off course if you plan ahead along as many lines as possible!
To some extent, this is a corollary of the first point, but it’s important to single out: deal with failure and success in the same way! You take care of your processes and (you know it) “the score will take case of itself”.
Be fair to your subordinates! Treat them equally and humanely and it will show in their performance.
Think of yourself as a teacher first; and think differently about teachers in general! In terms of official job description, many people you came across during your education were “teachers”, but in terms of genuine profession, only a few. But you probably still remember the names of these few, and could name the meaningful impact they had on you. Be like them!