A few months ago I went to an evening talk on leadership by Sir Ian Blair, which was excellent, and he recommended reading The score takes care of itself: my philosophy of leadership by Bill Walsh. It’s been on my reading wishlist ever since. Being on holiday in Thailand seemed like a good moment to read it.
I have to confess that I did not enjoy the way it was written, as it didn’t really appear to have a structure and sometimes felt like a collection of different lists on how to be a leader, each will a slightly different focus. I also didn’t get the bonus of being interested in the author, given I’d never heard of him before the book recommendation and knew nothing about American football and didn’t really want to know. This meant I found a lot of the detailed examples quite dull, but I’m sure others interested in the sport would find them fascinating, as I would have if this had been written by Arsene Wenger for instance. I also did not buy-into almost killing yourself to achieve your goals and sacrificing the rest of life until you burn out to do so. However, I did find much of the leadership advice useful and a lot of the values he described really resonated with me. My key takeaways fell into a number of themes.
How to get people to want to follow you
Some of the most critical leadership advice was to be yourself and to be authentic. Walsh argues that people will follow you if you have expertise and credibility, show self control and promote open communication. People want a leader who will take decisions, identify problems that need to be solved and solve them and can spot assets that are not being taking advantage of. It’s important to prepare for the unexpected and not to get stuck in things that worked before but don’t work anymore. Most important of all in getting people to want to follow you is a positive attitude and being obsessive in looking for an upside in every downside.
Being confident and resilient
The next theme I drew was the importance of being self-confident and resilient. Walsh stresses the importance of not second guessing decisions that you make with integrity, intelligence and a team-first attitude, and the need to be prepared to stand your ground and protect your turf when your position and authority are challenged. He also talks a lot about overcoming setbacks. He suggests ignoring undeserved criticism whilst learning from the deserved, and highlights the importance of allowing a brief time to grieve after failure and then getting right back up again – confronting the future rather than wallowing in the past. Not asking ‘why me?’, but just getting on with it, licking your wounds and moving on. Walsh applied a 24 hour rule in his career, only letting something bother him for 24 hours and then moving on. He argues that standing and overcoming a significant setback gives you inner confidence and self-assurance – a sober, steely toughness that increases independence and gives you a personal belief that you can take on anything, survive and succeed.
A focus on (important) detail
The next theme I took from the book was his relentless focus on important details. He describes his ‘standard of performance’, which focused on continual improvement, being detail oriented and maintaining an abnormally high level of concentration and focus.
Developing and supporting people
For me the most interesting parts of the book were those that focused on his attitude to other people. Walsh is clearly someone who cares about developing and supporting people. His tips for doing this include blending honesty and diplomacy, speaking in positive terms about people who have left the organisation, putting your team’s welfare and priorities ahead of your own, showing respect for everyone in the organisation, being fair, demonstrating and prizing loyalty and genuinely caring about people. He also emphasises the importance of being clear and specific with no ambiguity, arguing that people thrive when they know exactly what is expected of them, even when expectations are high. If you’ve done all that, doing your best to encourage, support and inspire, you also need to remember that ultimately people must do it for themselves. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
I also really liked Walsh’s emphasis on listening. He suggests that if you talk too much you must overcome it and learn to listen. A great example he gives is the manager who holds forth at a conference table, who might as well be sitting there alone.
Recruitment and performance management
There were also good tips on recruitment and performance management. Walsh suggests recruiting on the basis of talent, character, an ability to quickly think on your feet, and an eagerness to adopt the leader’s way of doing things. He also talks about the need to sometimes get rid of talented people who have a negative impact on organisational culture.
The last, but most important, theme that resonated with me is being deeply committed to learning and teaching, increasing your own expertise whilst teaching your team – the pleasure of developing and advancing others, whilst exhibiting optimism, enthusiasm and belief. For me, this was epitomised in a great quote, which encapsulates what I think is important about being a good leader:
If you don’t love it, don’t do it. I loved it – teaching people how to reach in deep to fulfil their potential, how to become great. And when you do that with a group, you, as the leader, enjoy the thrill of creating a great team. For me it was like creating a work of art. Only instead of paining on a canvas, I had the great job of creating in collaboration with others.