Four Leadership Lessons from the Super Bowl

I don’t watch much football. In fact, I don’t watch many sports other than an occasional golf tournament. But I watched the Super Bowl Sunday night and enjoyed every second of it. When Plaxico Burress caught the winning touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining, I came out of my chair. It was a thrilling end to a tense battle.

Super Bowl Finish

As I was reflecting on the game Monday morning, I thought that the Giants, particularly Eli Manning, demonstrated four characteristics of all great leaders:

  1. They remained humble. I heard an interview with Tom Brady, the Patriot’s quarterback before the game. I don’t remember the particulars, but I remember him assuming that the Patriots would trounce the Giants. Maybe he was just confident. But, as it turned out, he was over-confident at best. I also thought it was telling that Brady didn’t shake Manning’s hand after the game.

    Compare the Giants demeanor during the game. The Giants didn’t strut after they scored like the Patriots. In fact, Burress knelt in a silent prayer after catching the winning touchdown. I don’t think the contrast between the two teams—and their cultures—could have been more pronounced.

    Real leaders are humble. They don’t need to toot their own horn. And, they know just how fleeting and short-lived many successes are. As a result, their first response to a big win is gratitude not strutting like a peacock.

  2. They ignored the drift. Before the game, everyone assumed that the Patriots would achieve the “Perfect Season,” winning every game they played, including Super Bowl XLII. By game time, the Patriots were favored by twelve points. By contrast, many people didn’t believe the Giants even deserved to be in the Super Bowl. Certainly, no one expected them to win.

    It would have been easy for the Giants to listen to the drift of the media and assume they couldn’t win. No one would have blamed them if they had said to one another, “Look we probably can’t win. Let’s just do our best and hope we don’t embarrass ourselves too badly.” But they didn’t.

    Real leaders are aware of the drift, but they refuse to submit to it. Instead, they are internally-driven. They have their own agenda and plans. They shape reality instead of letting it shape them.

  3. They focused on execution. I’m sure a game like the Super Bowl is enormously distracting. Lights, cameras, music, tens of thousands of fans—a cacophony of sights and sounds. I’m sure it takes enormous discipline to stay focused on the task at hand. But Manning and the Giants did it. They marched steadily forward. And when they suffered a setback, they took it in stride and just kept playing.

    By contrast, the Patriots seemed rattled—even disoriented at times. Certainly, Brady wasn’t used to being sacked. After all, they had not lost all season. They just couldn’t seem to sustain a drive.

    Real leaders stay focused on execution. When they experience a setback, they come up with a new plan and keep moving forward. They exhibit extreme focus and discipline—especially in their heads, which is where the game is really won or lost.

  4. They played until the whistle blew. The Giants won in the last minute of the game. It would have been so easy to give up. And who would have blamed them? But they just kept driving forward. As long as they stayed on the field, they keep the possibility of winning alive.

    By contrast, the Patriot’s coach, Bill Belichick, walked off the field with one second remaining. Sure, losing was almost certain at that point. But, evidently, he hadn’t seen the Trinity University play in the final two seconds of their game with Mississippi Millsaps. They completed a pass and 15 laterals to win the game.

    Although there was only one second left, anything was possible. For example, the Giants could have fumbled. But, Belichick walked off the field before the whistle blew and sealed his own fate. As a leader, I think it also sent a terrible message to the team.

    Real leaders stay on the field until the whistle blows. They keep possibility alive and play hard. The Giants were a model of this, and they inspired everyone who watched, including me.

In the end, it is clear that the Super Bowl wasn’t about natural ability or momentum. It was about leadership. Manning was the better leader, and that’s the real reason the Giants won.

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  • mary godwin

    Mr. Hyatt, I have read you for close to two years now, and I have been inspired to live a healthier life, walk more closely with the Lord, and improve lines of integrity wherever I find opportunity to do so.

    Your short lesson today speaks to a very present need for encouragement in my academic career. I am a fourth-year doctoral student of literary theory and cultural studies. I love my work, research, and the opportunities I have to teach, and I recognize that to do a Ph.D. in theory well means I will be “in school” for several more years.

    Many of my colleagues are willing to take the fast lane to degree completion – hoop-jumping driven by market games and rewards, and it can be difficult to remember the greater rewards of staying on the field till the game is over.

    Thanks again today for the lead you take and for shouting good directions back to those of us who are following. -mg

    And by the way, thanks, too, for sharing holiday pictures of time at home with your family. It was good to put faces together with the names of those I’ve found in your stories. …good things!

  • Colleen Coble

    Ignoring the “drift” is the hardest thing any if us manage to do. I’d never heard the term but immediately recognized its effects. We even saw it in the primaries yesterday and the media was all wrong again. Your post was a good lesson to keep putting my focus where it needs to be and to keep tuning out the voices that tell me I’ll never get there. Thanks for that, Mike!

  • Michael E

    Amen to your last point.

    Do not leave your troops “on the battlefield” as you run for cover, ala Belichick.

  • christa Allan

    That one second in time may have reflected more about the character of Bill Belichick than decades of coaching.

    Clearly, a lesson both frightening and sobering.

  • Rachel Hauck

    Great post. I always find sports such great analogy of life lessons. I saw the one second on the clock, but thought it was a technical error. Yes, play to the last second. Never give up.

    Even Manning scrambling in those final seconds to make the pass that set up for the TD pass. He didn’t allow himself to be stopped.

    We have to believe in ourselves. We can “win.” If we don’t believe, we won’t scramble out of the sack or reach for the high pass.


  • glenn

    I just subscribed and say and Amen to your post. Mostly I am busineesmen with a love for coaching kids in ice hockey. I have seen the same results with teams as with businesses. I with teams and businesses I have seen that success can breed arrogates. Requardless what the score or the market share, it really is the fact you stay focused on character. With character you always win.

  • Marc V

    I have watched “much” football, and I thought the ref made a mistake in making them play for one second. In most every other game in that situation the ref will end the game, particularly if the losing team is going off of the field. Yeah, Belichik should have come back, but he had already shook Coughlin’s hand and apparently thought it was over. I cannot recall any pro game being decided by a blown final snap-and-kneel.

    The surprising aspect of the game was Belichik’s supposed mastery of the in-game adjustments, particularly after halftime. The Patriots could not find a scheme to counter the Giant’s pressure defense, and Eli Manning was able to find enough time to set up and pass when it counted.

    A strong defense will usually win more championships than a strong offense. There’s a leadership lesson in there somewhere.

  • Diane Stortz

    I’m thinking there’s a life lesson in Marc V’s last comment.

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, that only one piece of the armor of God is a weapon to use offensively as well as defensively?

    Maybe if we use the armor well and often as a pressure defense, we’ll also be able to strike–set up and pass–when it counts.

  • Temitayo Favour Nicole Ajobo

    that was very inspirational Mike cause I’m a student who is yet to gain admission into the university ti study medicine and almost all my mate and some of my family members are advicing me to give up and not to concider gaining admittion into the medical school. But since a good leader would not give up, I wont give up.Thanks Mike

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    there would be no other King of Pop like Michael Jackson. he would always be the King.

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