Super Bowl Leadership - Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC
February 19, 2019
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Super Bowl 50 LogoI’m writing this post the day before Super Bowl 50, the NFL’s championship game that has turned into a national holiday of sorts. Many of the millions who will spend all day tomorrow preparing for, and watching, the Super Bowl are serious fans. The rest are curious to see the commercials, participate in the social media chatter, or simply enjoy an excuse to party.

This year’s Super Bowl features two quarterbacks with very different personalities and approaches to playing the game. Both have been remarkably successful and are obvious leaders on their team. Here are a few of my observations about the way Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos) and Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers) lead.

Peyton Manning is a wily veteran playing in his 18th season. At age 39 he relies mostly on his knowledge of the game, ability to read defenses, and spontaneous play-calling (audibles) to lead his team. While he still has a strong arm, Manning understands that his intellect and experience offer him an edge on the field.

Manning’s teammates have learned to trust his judgment and adapt to his hurry-up style of offense that rejects the standard huddle and requires last-minute adjustments to position and play execution. Typically Manning shows little emotion on the field or the sidelines and his calm demeanor often keeps the team focused on the task at hand.

Contrast this approach with a much younger Cam Newton who is completing his fifth season as a pro. Newton is athletic and very comfortable passing or running with the ball. Passion might be the best way to describe his leadership approach. During a game his enthusiasm and energy are obvious and contagious.

Newton’s teammates know he will challenge them when he doesn’t see effort or they make a mistake. He willingly sacrifices his body to make plays and celebrates every touchdown with youthful vigor. Newton’s candor and bravado on, and off, the field have sometimes labeled him as arrogant and undisciplined.

How can these two very different leaders both achieve such high levels of success? What can we learn about leadership from their experiences?

  • Be yourself. This seems obvious but is still a good reminder. Both men understand what drives them, where their talents lie, and how they prefer to lead. They don’t try to be something they are not; to conform to other people’s expectations.
  • Be disciplined. Most fans never see the hours of hard work both these players put into honing their craft. A daily focus on diet, workouts, studying the playbook, watching film, and practicing on the field ensures they can execute when the situation requires it.
  • Be confident. Raw talent, intellect, and physical skills aren’t enough to guarantee success on or off a football field. Players like Manning and Newton must have confidence in themselves, their coaches, their teammates, and the game plan in order to win. Confidence is often on display during adversity, something both men have faced in their careers.

While I have no idea which quarterback will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy tomorrow night when Super Bowl 50 ends, I can promise you that these two leaders will have done what they could to place their team in a position to win. They will also have humbly acknowledged the other one’s winning effort if their team comes up short.

Another Super Bowl leadership lesson worth noting.

Postscript: After watching Cam Newton’s post-game press conference I feel compelled to add that my initial expectations of his behavior in the face of a loss were wrong. I am disappointed that he was not more gracious in defeat. Peyton Manning certainly displayed humility in his victory and was quick to acknowledge his teammates and coaches. That’s what I was hoping to see from Newton. Perhaps as he matures in his leadership he will learn something from this experience. Let’s hope so.

Ken Byler

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