Do You Spend Most of Your Time on Defense or Offense?

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

I confess my relationship with American Football is one of foggy understanding and distant admiration. As a child growing up in Britain, I occasionally saw Charlie Brown practising his kicking; I caught the razzmatazz of the Super Bowl on TV; I sensed the mystery of the huddle, the glamour of the quarterback, the drama of the snap; I felt the heroic resonance of names like Payton and Montana, Marino and ‘Mean’ Joe Greene; I recall the Green Bay Packers in the snow. Yes, I’ve watched ‘Jerry Maguire’ and ‘Remember the Titans.’ And I’ve cheered on the Seahawks at recent Super Bowls (Ka-kaw!). But for the most part I have understood American Football ‘through a glass darkly.’

Viewing with this constrained comprehension, I have always been impressed by the fact that each gridiron team has a separate offensive and defensive unit. (To a soccer fan this is an engaging eccentricity.) Broadly speaking, the offensive players pass and run; shimmy and leap; catch and drive. The defensive players block and tackle; guard and obstruct; sack and stop. And with each turnover one unit jogs off the pitch and the other marches on. There’s an elegant clarity to things.

It’s often struck me that we have offensive and defensive modes at work. Sometimes we’re on offense: pitching, proposing, provoking; reaching bold conclusions, making brave suggestions. On offense we dictate the rhythm of our week, the direction and pace of progress. We call the plays. Then sometimes we’re on defense: reassuring and repairing, maintaining and mitigating, explaining and justifying. Defense is all about stabilising relationships, securing accounts, holding onto what we’ve got. Defense is responding - to Clients, to the competition, to circumstances.

As individuals and businesses we have to be able to operate in both modes: to call the shots and respond to them. In the course of our careers we all need to handle the good times and the bad.

There are, of course, those that thrive on defense. These are the mediators and moderators; the people who build bridges and sooth spirits. They have a rare and precious talent, and it’s one that any enterprise should value.

But I would suggest that most people, and indeed most businesses, can only sustain defense for so long. When we’re consistently on the back foot, in recovery mode, we gradually lose our confidence, self-esteem and sense of identity. We become short-termist, cautious and conservative. We start to double guess our Clients and play it safe. Defense can sap strength and damage morale.

Most of us are at our best when we are progressing and pioneering. In the long run we need to play to our own strengths, not to other people’s; with our heads held high, rather than looking back over our shoulders; setting the agenda rather than responding to it. In the long run we need to regain our swagger. We need to be on offense.

So perhaps the old adage is true: attack really is the best form of defence. As the legendary footballer and coach Vince Lombardi advocated:

‘Offensively, you do what you do best and you do it again and again. Defensively, you attack your opponent’s strength.’

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

It is a critical task of leadership to know when to switch between our defensive and offensive lines. Sometimes, when we are on a winning streak, we can get complacent and fail to shore up our incumbent base. Then we need defense. Sometimes, when the business is under threat, there is no alternative but defense. Sometimes, when opportunity knocks, offense comes naturally. And sometimes, even when we are assailed on every front, we just need to switch to offense in order to rebuild morale and regain control of our destiny. 

Making the call between offense and defense is rarely easy. Often we have to engage both modes at the same time. It’s a matter of judgement and experience. And it’s also, of course, about hard work.

‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.’
Vince Lombardi

No. 149