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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