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NFL’s Tagliabue remembers the future

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Years ago, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue read a book that described the U.S. Supreme Court’s obligation “to remember the future and imagine the past.”

Tagliabue loved that turn of phrase. The future doesn’t simply happen, he surmised. We shape it through our decisions.

Example: Tagliabue’s greatest challenge came in 1992, when he tried to persuade NFL team owners to accept allowing players to play out their contracts and become free agents.

The owners had operated for 70 years on the assumption that free agency would wreck the league. They feared the best players would gravitate toward the biggest markets.

Tagliabue turned their thinking around, not so much by trying to change their minds as by showing them how free agency—coupled with a cap on teams’ salaries—would serve their interests.

Tagliabue prevailed because he was willing to learn from the past and fight for his vision.

—Adapted from “10 Top Leaders Tell Their Secrets,” Matthew Boyle, Fortune.

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