As usual, in a marquee struggle witnessed live by tens of thousands of fans and millions of people worldwide, big stakes resulted in major hallmarks in leadership—and significant failures as well.
Here are a half-dozen leadership lessons for CEOs and other business leaders that emerged from Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco.
1. Go with your strength. The clear game plan of Denver Coach Gary Kubiak was to allow the NFL’s best defense to win the game for the Broncos. That meant not only working with his defensive head, Wade Phillips, to optimize opportunities for stars such as DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, but also dictating to quarterback Peyton Manning and the offense to play a low-risk type of game. Manning did throw one uncharacteristic interception, but otherwise, he hewed closely to Kubiak’s directive. As a long-experienced winner, Manning knew Kubiak’s plan was by far the Broncos’ best chance to make him a winner again.
2. Take bigger risks on a bigger stage. Carolina could have set a different tone for the game if Coach Ron Rivera had elected to attempt to gain a first down on a short-yardage fourth down on the Panthers’ first possession. At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Newton probably could have picked up the couple of feet required just by pushing through on a quarterback sneak. But Rivera declined to gamble, probably figuring his high-powered offense would get plenty more opportunities. And in giving up on trying to achieve what had become a hallmark of the Panthers’ game this year—getting off to blazing starts and huge leads—he played into Kubiak’s hands early.
3. Know when to walk away. It would shock most NFL pundits and fans if Manning didn’t announce his retirement soon. While not his greatest season as injury continued to whittle away at his skills, and one in which he spent some time on the bench, the way this year ended has set up a no-brainer swan song for Manning. He can retire as an unmatched five-time NFL Most Valuable Player; tied for two Super Bowl victories with his far less-accomplished brother, Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants; having defeated long-time nemesis Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, in their last match-up; with his health intact; and on top of the football world with nothing else to prove.
4. Read and follow the mood of the people. Super Bowl advertisers did, for the most part, which was why their 60-some advertisements during the Big Game, at an estimated $5 million per 60 seconds, for the most part relied on tried-and-true approaches involving humor, animals and celebrities. There were few ads that in any way could have qualified as ambitious cultural statements; even Fiat Chrysler stuck with promoting only the 75th anniversary of Jeep in its two spots. There were few preachy ads, unless you count Colgate’s commercial scolding Americans for wasting water by letting the faucet run while they are brushing their teeth. And the ads even ran low on the titillation meter, with the most ribald scene being a brief riff by comic Amy Schumer, in a Bud Light spot, about what a “big caucus” the Bud Light Party has.
5. Don’t sulk in defeat. Only a day has passed since the pinnacle so far of what seems likely to be a Hall of Fame NFL career, when Cam Newton was named MVP for the first time at a league ceremony on Saturday night. But after his disappointing performance on Sunday, Newton sulked at his post-game press conference, barely answered questions and then cut off the proceedings after just three minutes or so. That was a mistake by someone who’s looking for a new level of respect in the league and by brand marketers.
6. Keep on keeping on. It’s been a rough couple of years for the National Football League and Commissioner Roger Goodell, what with domestic-violence incidents aplenty and the league’s poor handling of them, unprecedented alarm over on-the-field concussions and a feature film exploiting the issue, geographic instability over the league’s decision to bless franchise movements out of St. Louis and within California, and other issues such as last year’s deflate-gate. Yet it’s hard to argue that Goodell and the NFL so far have been diminished considerably, with TV ratings and fan and brand support continuing to reach new peaks. This continued success makes their strategy for the future even more important.