5 Leadership Lessons from the Super Bowl Coaches

Super Bowl 50 may be determined by whether the electrifying offensive weapon of the Carolina Panthers, quarterback Cam Newton, can impose his will on the stultifying defense of the Denver Broncos. But before the game unfolds in San Francisco on February 7, the two coaches who have led their teams to the NFL championship game already have created some worthy lessons in leadership and management.

Here are 5 of them from the playbooks of Gary Kubiak, head coach of the AFC Champion Broncos, and Ron Rivera, chief of the NFC Champion Panthers.

1. Have faith in your best people. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was hurt and on the bench for part of the regular season and playing with diminishing zip on his passes when he has been on the field. And when his backup, Brock Osweiler, enjoyed a measure of success leading the Denver offense late in the season, many Broncos fans hoped that Kubiak would put the team’s Super Bowl hopes on him instead of Manning.

“In Kubiak’s most important decision for the post-season, he went with a veteran employee who wants to prove that he still has what it takes to win.”

But Kubiak brought back Manning when he was ready physically and has shown, so far in the playoffs, that there is no substitute for experience, wisdom, leadership and smarts when it comes to football at this level. In Kubiak’s most important decision for the post-season, he went with a veteran employee who wants to prove that he still has what it takes to win.

2. Find a great mentor. Much ado was made by game commentators on Sunday evening about Rivera’s relationship with one of the game’s great former coaches, John Madden, who has regularly counseled the Panthers head during this wildly successful season.

“He’s just been terrific,” Rivera recently said of Madden. “Being honest and very blunt about things, giving me advice and opinions. For example, Madden “had called me upon certain milestones that we hit in the season and congratulated me and I shared that with the players and coaches.”

3. Get back up. Head coaching jobs in the NFL are notoriously volatile, of course; even long-time winners can’t underperform for long, such as the New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin, who resigned after the 2015 season. But not everyone gets back up after being knocked down.

Kubiak has. He was head coach of the Houston Texans for seven years ending in 2013, but he never got the team past the divisional round of playoffs, where they lost in 2011 and 2012. He took a year of apprenticeship under Super Bowl-winning head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens before accepting his chance at redemption as head coach of the Broncos this year.

4. Have patience when you see potential. Newton was supposed to immediately turn the NFL upside down after the Panthers selected him with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, with his rare combination of size, speed and savvy. But it took him a few years to mature into today’s threat as Rivera and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson continued to build up the team around him.

In fact, Newton turned in statistically his worst season in 2014, with lows in passing yards, rushing yards, quarterback rating and other key stats. Then he suffered two fractures in his lower back in a two-car accident in December of that year.

But with Rivera’s enthusiastic endorsement, Newton signed a $100-million contract extension last spring—and the rest is history. It might have been tempting for the coach and owner to give up on Newton a year ago, but they didn’t. And now they’re being rewarded for their patience.

5. Create a leadership mission. Rivera’s nickname is “Riverboat Ron,” a name he earned in 2014 after he showed a repeated willingness for high stakes gambles. But this year, he seemed to be thoughtful and deliberate about how he wanted to lead the Panthers to greatness. Rivera has shared his approach with local audiences, including these principles:

  • Be the leader that you would follow.
  • As the leader, it is not always about being in front.
  • Delegate the authority, not the standard. You must set the standard.
  • Hold everybody to that standard, especially yourself.
  • Remember, at the end of the day, you are responsible for the standard.

Whichever coach wins on February 7, they already have demonstrated winning leadership styles.



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