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What Leaders Can Learn From Super Bowl XLVI

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I know what you're thinking if you're not a New York Giants fan. Here is another one of their obnoxious fans basking in the glow of a second tight and impressive victory over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. But besides being a fan of Big Blue since I was a little kid growing up in Northern New Jersey, I am an executive coach and leadership development consultant who enjoys using current events and symbolic stories to unpack the meaning of leadership. So, I expect my enthusiasm for the Giants might seep through in this blog, but I'd still like to spend some time reflecting upon the leadership lessons from the Super Bowl.

This was an improbable Super Bowl because of the Giants' very up and down season challenged by multiple injuries, games lost that should have been won (think Seattle), four losses in a row in mid-season, and a gauntlet of six "sudden death" games where a loss meant the season was over. The championship game itself was thrilling with miraculous catches, improbable luck, critical errors, and enough drama to compete with Downton Abbey over on PBS.

Here are some of the lessons in leadership from Super Bowl XLVI:

Winners are "All In." The phrase "All In" was almost a marketing message that the team used to energize and engage loyal fans in the two weeks before the game. During a poker game, you say "all in" when you are putting all of your chips on the line. You are gambling everything to win big. The Giants understood what it meant to have their backs to the wall. After all, the five previous contests were "win or go home." A Super Bowl is the biggest stage in football and a particular moment when players need to demonstrate a total commitment to victory and a lack of fear of the enormity of the situation. Some leaders thrive when they or their teams are in a situation which is high stakes because of an opportunity or a threat. All of us want to follow leaders who can step up at times like this, who can be at their best when the moment calls for total effort.

Any Member of the Team Can Make the Difference. Four years ago, an unknown wide receiver named David Tyree caught the most amazing catch in Super Bowl history to sustain a game winning touchdown drive for the Giants. In this Super Bowl, while we may have expected the most important catch to come from Victor Cruz, the salsa dancing, breakout star whose thrilling play turned the heads of everyone in the league, or Hakeem Hicks, the tall and graceful wide receiver who is tough to stop after he catches the ball. Instead, the most important catch of the game came from the predictably reliable Mario Manningham whose stunning grab at the sideline in the fourth quarter moved the Giants from their own 12 yard line into Patriot territory. Bill Belichick, the coach from the Patriots, even said before that play that his defensive backs should focus on Cruz and Hicks and "make them throw to Manningham." Well, a star was born at that moment. Even more surprising was the story of Chase Blackburn who a few months earlier left his position as a school teacher to rejoin the Giants because of injuries to their starting linebackers. Now, in the biggest game of all, he made an impressive interception to stop a potentially devastating scoring drive from the Patriots. As leaders, we should not underestimate the importance of all team members in our work, even the individuals who are not considered to be essential talent.

Sometimes, It's Best to Go Against Your Instincts. Deep in Patriot territory with little time in the fourth quarter, the Giants needed to burn the clock before scoring in order to avoid last minute heroics from Tom Brady and New England's offense. On the six yard line with a minute to go, Eli handed off to running back Ahmad Bradshaw on second down and the Patriots separated and allowed Bradshaw to score. Now, imagine, Bradshaw has been trained since the first time he touched a football to run forward to the end zone. In this situation, quite differently, he should have taken a knee at the one yard line. Eli was yelling "don't score" as he handed off the ball, but Bradshaw could not reign in his instinct to score; his muscle memory was just too powerful. Overcoming instinct is one of the most challenging feats. As a coach, I am often working with leaders to help them suppress their instincts or consistent tendencies when these behaviors lead them into making mistakes that impact their success. This takes incredible self-awareness and the willingness to trust what is most unnatural. This led to one adorable touchdown, but it made the ending of this game more dramatic than it needed to be.

Leaders Make Their Own Legacy. Before the season, Eli Manning was tripped up in an interview responding affirmatively to a question about whether he was an elite quarterback. This fired up the press and sports fans alike to debate Eli's legacy. His response was to put together the best season of his career. It's always a bit odd when we talk about our own impact on the world. We can come across big headed or overly self-aware. The results and the way that we achieved them really matter in the end. Call Eli whatever you want, his play and team leadership were elite enough to gain a second Super Bowl ring.

Great Teams Get Lucky. There is no doubt that the Giants caught some breaks in this game. They fumbled three times but recovered all of them. And, there was the missed pass from quarterback Tom Brady to wide open wide receiver Wes Welker which could have ended the game. No team's game plan includes relying on luck. When you are firing on all cylinders and playing your best game, luck often comes your way.

Winners Finish the Job. Giants head Coach Tom Coughlin explained to his players that he had tremendous belief in them after this rocky season. He also told them to finish games because of a bad history of getting ahead and losing (The loss to the Eagles in 2010 was historic for its choke value). When Manning was handed the opportunity to lead a game winning drive in the fourth quarter he seemed poised and confident without an ounce of anxiety. He already had NFL records for winning this type of game and his sense of belief in himself and his team was palpable. This is what destiny feels like. Leaders need to have a confidence that demonstrates belief in everyone around them. And, they have to stay focused and tenacious to the very end, never taking anything or anyone for granted.

The Best Leaders Love Their People. Coughlin has the reputation of being a very serious coach who is tough as nails. His last speech to the team emphasized some of his common themes of the season like "finish" and "believe." But, he added a new theme that united his squad, "love." Coughlin said the most important trait of a championship team is the love that the players have for each other. In business, we don't invoke the "L" word too often. Perhaps, we have had too much sexual harassment training. But, at the end of the day, if you can demonstrate and communicate love for your people, you engender much deeper commitment and an enduring relationship that creates the opportunity to build upon success time and again. Turns out, love is all you need.

Well, any fan loves when their team wins a championship. I know for sure that I will be using stories from this amazing Giant season in many future coaching sessions and leadership development programs. Always, I will be doing so with a smile on my face.