Winning On and Off the Field: Lessons from Leading in the NFL

How People, Purpose and Performance Inspires Organizational Success

The sports industry, like most, is built and bred through high performance teams. There are metrics that are met or not met, tied to incentives for those who achieve.

The same can be said for the world of sales where I spent a decade in leadership roles ramping up a fast track toward the highest ranks the industry had to offer. Thankfully I was always surrounded by such amazing talent that results were never in question and the industry continued to reward me as most high performers are today in business: an influential title, more responsibilities, higher compensation.

In 2016 I realized that hitting a number no longer inspired me to get out of bed and that moving up the corporate ladder no longer fueled me as it did before. And as I became familiar with this feeling within me, I noticed that this lack of inspiration (for different reasons) had spread throughout our team as well.

I had become the coach I never wanted, the one that purely cared about the end result. I was unknowingly making my team members feel like replaceable cogs in the process because that process was working. To be honest, I’m not sure if there was a visible care for the person like there was for the professional, the part that helped us reach our numbers. And the easiest thing to do would be stay on the treadmill I was on.

In 2016, the BW Leadership Institute ran a class for members of the 49ers team called Inspire Like a Leader and I found my Why. It gave me clarity on my core values in life, making the intangible feeling from above move into how I made decisions and allowing me to show up authentically to my team.

It was a pivotal moment for me as I realized that I want to be a leader that inspires people, cares for them, and creates a purposeful environment and life-long relationships with everyone – regardless of title or performance. I wanted to act in alignment with what I believed: that the results produced would be the organic outcome of this highly engaging, fulfilling and meaningful environment.

Over the years, I’ve realized that there are two coaching philosophies in sports that lead to different levels of performance and results.

Win at all costs: Entirely performance driven. Success is measured by a singular pre-determined metric.

  • Successful? Possible
  • Sustainable? Unlikely as this will breed burnout, turnover and lack of engagement
  • Inspiring? Certainly not – once the honeymoon period of winning dissolves

The score will take care of itself: Trusting that if you build and develop the right team while creating a purpose-centric environment, winning will be the natural outcome.

  • Successful? Highly probable
  • Sustainable? Likely as this will breed trust, dedication, and engagement
  • Inspiring? Certainly once it is built and there is momentum which may be sooner than you think

At the 49ers, the business philosophy that the score would take care of itself was implemented and revenues grew 20% year-over-year. So yes, being intentional about the culture we were creating did affect the bottom line. However to us as an organization that has now been ranked one of the best places to work in the Bay Area, the proudest metric of it all was the day-to-day inspiration that every employee felt for being a part of the team. You spend most of your week at your work and when it’s building you into a better person, that’s success.

With these results in mind, these are a few key parts in the playbook for building a purpose-centric culture:

  1. Find your personal Why – and do it alongside your team. Going through this personal ‘Why’ discovery with my teammates, I not only found out what personally drives me but I also felt invested and connected with individuals in only four hours. A relationship doesn’t take years to build but it does take understanding what drives an individual so as to treat them as they want to be treated. Spend quality time with your team to dive into what drives you both individually and as a whole group.
  2. Create unique forms of recognition and celebration for your team. Anyone can hand out a gift card but the thought behind what you give will influence the impact on the recipient. For the 49ers, all members of the team who surpassed goal were given a gold jacket, a symbol for what is given to NFL players as they are inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. This feeling on the business side of being connected to a ritual for the greatest players was a game-changer. Find something within your industry or for that specific person that is meaningful and it will not only make team members feel valued, but also build a unique culture.
  3. Show how every person’s role is essential to the bigger organizational purpose. For those on my team, making sales calls can be monotonous, thankless, and exhausting. However, when you bring in executives from other areas of the business to understand the role sales and revenue play in their lives and for the organization, the 100 calls seemed worth it, because it fed into something bigger than themselves. Show team members where they fit in the bigger picture to inspire alignment to the vision of the organization.
  4. Give people the opportunity to have finger prints on the blue prints. This metaphor stuck with me because it’s so simple and true: to create an inclusive atmosphere is to create a roadmap where most elements were not created by me as the leader. The best way to improve a process is to have the person who does the process be the lead on the improvements.

If the above still feels intangible, start with asking yourself some of these questions:

  • What are my values as a leader? How does that influence how I show up to work?
  • What makes my team excited to show up to work?
  • What does my team look like on its’ best day?
  • Am I creating memorable experiences of recognition and celebration that are meaningful to our team? And am I recognizing more than performance, such as alignment with company values or one’s efforts?
  • Do those in my span of care understand the importance of their work in terms of the bigger picture?
  • How often do I ask for feedback in their day-to-day environment? Am I asking, listening, and implementing what matters most to our team?

These elements create an environment where people feel appreciated, valued, and most importantly, like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Inspire your team but start by knowing what inspires you. After all, inspiration is 27% more predictive of performance than engagement. That sounds like a winning game plan to me.


Paul Epstein is the Director of Strategic Relationships for the BWLI in California. If you’d like to follow-up with Paul, you can email him at or connect with him on LinkedIn.