Leadership in action

Paul Epstein says there are 5 pillars of leadership that can keep companies on offense.

Author and former NFL and NBA executive Paul Epstein believes there are two types of people in the world — those who play defense and those who play offense.

At NALP’s Leaders Forum recently held in Maui, Hawaii, Epstein explained to attendees that successful leaders are those who are always on offense.

“As leaders, we are the tone setters of culture,” Epstein said.

He went on to say that leaders on offense are those playing to win and operating on their own terms, while defensive leaders are on their heels, playing not to lose and letting the market dictate their terms.

Epstein added that while leadership is important for those at the top, the behaviors of a great leader can be held by anyone.

“Do you need a title to listen? To care? To earn trust? Of course you don’t,” he said. “Leadership is nothing more than a trainable set of behaviors.”

Epstein’s 15-year career in sports taught him countless lessons on leadership. He shared his five pillars of successful leadership. They are:

Pillar 1 — Live with championship performance.

Epstein noted that a person spends 101,250 hours of their life working.

“Work is the biggest part of the pie chart,” he quipped.

Most people are either energized or deflated by this fact, Epstein said.

To get more people on board and happy to come to work, Epstein suggested leading through purpose — or what he calls the “who and why.”

“We each have a compass, want to know who we are,” he said. “That’s your beliefs, values and your why.”

Epstein added that not only is purpose an important part of leadership, it’s also essential when it comes to culture. And he expects it’ll stay that way.

“If you want to attract the workers of tomorrow purpose matters than anything else,” he said.

Pillar 2 — Be a storm chaser

“Purpose can be the cornerstone of resilience,” Epstein said.

He added that building off of purpose comes the ability to face tough situations head on and with integrity.

Epstein recalled working for the San Francisco 49ers when quarterback Colin Kaepernick infamously took a knee during the national anthem.

“It was a day the sports industry had never seen,” he said.

After that, Epstein remembers the phone ringing off the hook and season ticketholders demanding action from the front office. They wanted him cut from the team.

“80% of ticket holders wanted him gone… but only 15% ended up leaving,” Epstein said.

He added this was due to a powerful reaction from Al Guido’s, president of the 49ers, and the superior level of customer service the brand had always been giving ticketholders.

“Had we not given them the Disney level of customer service during the blue skies, they wouldn’t have been as loyal when the storm hit,” Epstein said.

“The majority of life is things you can’t control,” he added. “Adversity does not build character, it reveals character…Control the controllables to influence the storm.”

Pillar 3 — Salute the long snapper

Epstein said the long snapper may be the most overlooked position in football.

“They do their job right 99% of the time but we remember that 1%,” he noted.

Epstein noted an important part of leadership is remembering to celebrate and acknowledge the 99% and leave that 1% to be dealt with sparingly.

“If people feel big they play big and if they feel small they play small,” he said.

“Recognition is one of the most valuable resources and it’s free,” Epstein added. “It’s highly needed and low cost.”

Epstein added that recognition and listening is easy. He shared a favorite quote of his — “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Pillar 4 — Embody gold jacket culture

Epstein said the golden era of the Los Angeles Lakers is renowned for many things, one being the culture.

“I used to think of culture as top down,” he noted, adding that in fact culture should start at the lowest levels of a company and work up.  

“Every culture has infinite micro-climates,” Epstein said. “All culture is local down to the individual level.”

Epstein suggested leaders get a feel for what their company’s culture is like, and how they are perceived, by noticing the atmosphere when they walk into a room or meeting.

“When you walk into a room, are you warming it up or cooling it off? And are you aware of your temperature?” Epstein asks.

If someone sees a noticeable shift when they walk in the room, Epstein said the thing to do is simple —seek to serve, rally around the cause and build trust.

He said building trust can be done as easily and as cost effectively as hosting listening sessions and quarterly check-ins with employees.

Epstein shared a story from his consulting days, where a company asked him to come in and find ways to improve culture.

Practically every person he talked to mentioned how disappointed they were that the to-go boxes had been taken away in the cafeteria.

When he brought this up to the CEO, Epstein said they knew nothing of the to-go boxes.

“You all have a to-go box inside your organization that you don’t even know about,” he said to attendees. “Take the time and energy and invest in hosting a listening session. Ask what you can do more of, what can you do better, and what can we do different?”

Pillar 5 — Leave it better than you found it

Epstein said the final pillar may seem like the simplest and most important.

He shared that he learned this sentiment from his father, who he lost as a teenager.

Epstein said his father worked for a second-chance high school where he had the opportunity to touch many lives.

Through the years, Epstein says he’s heard from several of his father’s former students that he was the one person who made them feel special and believed in.

“That’s the sole goal of leadership,” Epstein said. “That tomorrow is possible.”

Epstein suggested attendees dedicate this year to someone special. Having someone that they’re working for and striving to honor can help you lead more effectively and more thoughtfully, Epstein said.