What I Learned from Bill Walsh: My First Book Review

Olympia Lui
5 min readJan 19, 2021

One of my goals for 2021 is to read and review 12 personal or career growth books. Here is my first review of the year on The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh.

The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership describes the requirements of successful leadership and the performance standards of Bill Walsh, one of the NFL’s top coaches.

As the title implies, his philosophy is that if you work as hard as you can towards perfection, the win will come.

His book covers:

  • His standard of performance, one that he instilled within everyone at the organization, from the coaches and the players to the groundskeeper and the secretary.
  • The significance of planning and hard work, and focusing on what is within your control.
  • His take on leadership, leading by example and making the right decisions.
  • How to win and maintain that position.
  • Key lessons from his decade as head coach for the San Francisco 49ers.

Although a lot of lessons in his book may seem common today, his take on coaching football was non-traditional for his time. When he joined the 49ers, instead of looking for the highest paid superstars to join his team, he focused on process, bringing out the best in everyone, and making sure all members of his team and staff knew what was expected of them. It was this approach that got him and his team 3 Super Bowl victories.

Because there were many nuggets, here are my takeaways.

On standard of performance:

If you’re operating at a standard of performance, there is no need to push harder and harder. Big or small, it’s business as usual.

Every person in your organization, without exception, should be performing at the highest standard, both mentally and physically. → Walsh made sure that his standard of performance was kept by everyone receiving a 49ers paycheque.

Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.

On working under stress:

It is important to plan for both fair and foul weather, have a thought-out contingency plan. It removes decision making under high stress, when you might not be seeing or thinking clearly.

On focusing on your circle of control:

According to Walsh’s 80/20 rule, you can control 80% of the outcome, the rest of it, is luck. Make the most out of the 80%.

On risk and surprise:

The element of surprise (high risk) often doesn’t lead to good results. But when it does succeed, you’re conditioned to do it again, hoping for the same results, which will likely not succeed again. Instead, focus on low risk and high reward outcomes. Be methodical, walk the walk, work hard. The rest will come.

On failure:

It’s important to understand that we all go through failure. Don’t spend too much time dwelling and letting it get the most of you.

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.

Even in the worst circumstances, we must act professional and give it our all: it’s not about if we fail, it’s about how we fail.

Be obsessed with looking at the updside in the downside.

On success and winning:

[Strength of will] is essential to your survival and success.

Walsh describes the phenomenon of “Success Disease”: when you are overconfident after a win. When you think you’ve mastered it, and perhaps let it get to your head. It is important how you act and what you do next after you win.

Mastery requires endless remastery. […] It is a process, not a destination.

Never fall prey to the belief that getting to the top makes everything easy.

As it is for failing: it’s not about if we succeed (or win), but it’s about how we succeed (or win). What quality of work got you here? Did you perform at your highest standard?

On people:

I wanted to work with people smart enough to have independent thinking but strong enough to change their opinion when evidence or logic suggested it.

There are people with character, and then there’s people who have “situational character”: their attitude is linked to results. Seek those with character, not the ladder. You want people with consistent commitment, even when success is almost a given.

On leadership:

Be observant during your comments. Know if you’re connecting.

When providing feedback, it is important to observe how the person is receiving it. Did it land? Were they in the right mindset to receive feedback?

According to Walsh, the most powerful message you can say to someone to help someone reach their full potential is “I believe in you”. It inspires self-confidence, feeling valued, especially coming from someone they respect.

On ego:

Have ego and not egotism. Ego can be a healthy and powerful thing: it’s pride, self confidence. Egotism can be a dangerous thing.

You become increasingly self-important, self-centered, and selfish, just as a hot-air balloon gets pumped with lots of hot air until it turns into some big, ponderous entity that’s slow, vulnerable and easily destroyed.

“I became overwhelmed with worry about that score and lost sight of the fact that in a fight you go as hard as you can, do all you’re capable of doing, knowing that ultimately, while you can influence the results to a greater or less or degree, you do not control the result.”

At the end of the book, Walsh shared that there were times he failed to live by his own life principle. And as a reader, I really appreciated his vulnerability in sharing his personal story of reaching his limits.

Photo credit: 49ers.com

Bill Walsh had a very specific leadership philosophy. He worked incredibly hard: he believed that a leader should know everything, be an expert on it all, and be able to teach it back. Everything should be done at a level of excellence, whether it’s in a practice or on game night.

I’ve recognized that not every chapter in this book applies to all work-environment or realities. But if I were to take away one lesson, it would be this: you do not control the results. What you do control is your input and let the score take care of itself.

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