Confessions of an NFL Executive: The ONE Trait That Separates Winners From Losers

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Opinion

In the high-stakes world of professional sports, what separates the championship teams from the perennial also-rans? I recently had the pleasure of discussing this very question with Paul Epstein, who spent 15 years as an executive in the NFL and NBA, including stints with the San Francisco 49ers. The insights he shared were eye-opening – and directly applicable far beyond the realm of sports.

According to Paul, the key differentiator is mindset. Specifically, championship organizations embrace an offensive mindset rather than a defensive one. They focus relentlessly on the factors within their control and refuse to be distracted or deterred by adversity. In Paul’s words: “Defense is nothing more than adversity, setbacks, hurdles, obstacles – all the things that typically are out of our control. But yet we let it overtake our lives, in our business, in our careers.”

How many of us fall into this defensive trap in our own pursuits? When challenges arise or results don’t meet expectations, it’s all too easy to start playing the blame game, making excuses, or simply throwing in the towel. We take our eye off the ball (pun intended) and lose sight of our larger goals and vision.

The offensive mindset, in contrast, is all about controlling the controllables. As Paul put it, channeling his experience as an executive in the NBA: “I can’t control what happens on the court…but I can control my mindset. I can control how I show up every day. I can control how hard I pound the pavement and work. I can control my attitude. I can control whether I don’t have a victim mentality and whether I have extreme ownership.”

Isn’t that equally true in business, in our careers, and in life overall? There will always be factors beyond our control that threaten to knock us off course. The economy, our competitors, disruptive technologies, professional setbacks, personal crises – the list goes on. But obsessing over these external forces is ultimately a losing game. The only productive approach is to focus on what we can control: our effort, our resilience, our willingness to adapt and evolve.

A related insight from Paul’s experience hiring top sales talent in the NBA: he looked for three key traits above all else – work ethic, positivity, and coachability. Raw sales skills were secondary. As he explained to his hires: “I need work ethic, I need positivity, I need coachability. You give me those three things, I will take care of you the rest of your life.”

When you think about it, aren’t those the same core qualities that drive success in any field? A tireless work ethic, a relentlessly positive attitude, and a commitment to continuous growth and improvement. With those foundational elements in place, acquiring specific skills and expertise becomes infinitely more attainable. Without them, even the most impressive resume amounts to little.

This is where the offensive mindset really comes into play. It’s about waking up every day and focusing single-mindedly on those controllable inputs, trusting that the results will follow. It’s about “prioritizing action over outcome,” as Paul so eloquently put it. When we become overly fixated on results – hitting sales targets, winning the next big client, getting that promotion – we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment. External circumstances can always intervene, chance factors we could never foresee or control.

But when we define success in terms of the actions we take day in and day out – the proverbial “swings of the bat,” in Paul’s metaphor – we position ourselves to win in the long run, even if we strike out on any given attempt. “I don’t know if it’s going to work out,” he summarized. “But I trust myself that I’m going to have one of two outcomes: I succeed or I learn…Life is just a game of decisions and actions.” Amen.

This emphasis on action over outcome, process over results, is at the very core of the libertarian ethos. As libertarians, we believe in the power of free individuals to chart their own course in life, irrespective of the artificial barriers erected by government overreach and burdensome regulation. We understand that a free society is a messy one, marked by disparate outcomes. But we also know that the alternative – an overweening state apparatus that tries to centrally plan equal results – is infinitely worse.

Only by empowering individuals to define success on their own terms, to pursue their unique potential without interference or decree from above, can we hope to build a truly prosperous, innovative, and dynamic society. The offensive mindset channels this spirit of personal responsibility, self-determination, and relentless growth. It acknowledges that life isn’t always fair, that setbacks are inevitable – but that whining is unproductive. The only way forward is to put your head down, control what you can control, and trust that with consistent effort and reflection, you will make progress over time.

This is as true in the broader cultural and political realms as it is in business and sports. For too long, the prevailing mindset in our national discourse has been a defensive one. Both right and left are mired in grievance, resentment, and demonization of the other.

Conservatives rage against liberal elites, woke mobs, and deep state conspiracies. Progressives, for their part, see systemic racism, entrenched privilege, and white supremacist bogeymen behind every corner. Each side is so focused on assigning blame and wallowing in victimhood that actual solutions become an afterthought. Partisan posturing takes precedence over productive dialogue and good-faith problem-solving.

What if we approached our political and cultural challenges with an offensive mindset instead? What if, rather than complaining about intractable differences, canceling ideological opponents, or threatening national divorce, we focused relentlessly on the values and institutions that unite us? Free speech, due process, equality under the law, the Bill of Rights – these are the controllables that form the very bedrock of the American idea.

By the same token, what if more of our leaders and pundits woke up every day thinking critically about how they can make a positive impact – through their words, their actions, their example – regardless of what the other side is saying or doing? What if we measured success in terms of proactive steps taken to expand liberty, promote human flourishing, and bring people together, rather than reactive tweetstorms, cheap applause lines, and zero-sum gamesmanship?

I’m not naive enough to believe such a shift could happen overnight. The defensive mindset is deeply entrenched on all sides, and overcoming that toxic inertia is the paramount challenge of our time. But change has to start somewhere, with someone. It’s on each of us to flip the orientation in our own lives: to stop playing defense against forces beyond our control, to start playing offense in pursuit of the values and goals we hold dear.

At the end of the day, an offensive mindset is really a mindset of hope, positivity, and growth – in sports, in business, and in life. It’s easy to succumb to cynicism and fatalism in the face of adversity. It takes real courage and character to keep battling, day after day, with no guarantee of results but an unwavering belief in the process. That’s as true for an undrafted rookie trying to make the team as it is for a free society swimming against the authoritarian tide.

But as Paul’s experience demonstrates, organizations – and civilizations – that embrace an offensive ethos will triumph in the end over those mired in stagnant, defensive decline. By controlling the controllables, prioritizing action over outcome, and staying relentlessly true to our core values, we give ourselves the best possible shot at victory. Everything else is just noise.

Brian Nichols is host of the Brian Nichols Show – powered by Amp America. You can follow Brian on X at @bnicholsliberty.

NEXT: Habits of Effective Libertarians

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