Passion, Resiliency, and Cam Newton’s Super Bowl Performance

by Lane Wallace on February 12, 2016

Say what you will about the NFL, or professional football, I love the Super Bowl. Every year, the game manages to produce some applicable nugget or insight of leadership, passion, or life. After all, if nothing else, the Super Bowl is unquestionably leadership and passion played out on a high-stress, high-stakes stage, in front of a huge audience … which makes it prime material for Shakespeare-style drama and lessons.

Last year, the New England Patriots-Seattle Seahawks contest (which turned on Seattle’s end-of-game decision to pass on a second-and-goal and the 1 yard line) gave me terrific material for a discussion about decision-making under pressure. This year, the nugget I found most interesting had to do with the leadership quality known as resiliency. And, oddly enough, it came after the final whistle blew.

As it happens, I’m currently working on a book about the power and importance of an authentic voice–which I define as each person’s most authentic inner self. To bring your authentic voice into the world is to find a way to express your deepest held beliefs, values, unique personality traits and ideas, and to build a career and life that reflects those elements and uses them to have meaningful impact.

Speaking and leading with an authentic voice can give a person an extraordinary amount of personal power, for several reasons. First, if you care deeply about something, you’ll fight harder for it, with the power of passion behind you. Second, audiences sense when people are being authentic in their passion for a cause or a position they’re advocating, and are more likely to believe and support those leaders. And third, finding and embracing your true, authentic voice involves some honest, humble admissions of who you are, and who you are not, on the inside. So people who speak and lead with an authentic voice tend to be less arrogant and brassy than leaders who are merely charismatic. There is character and depth to an authentic voice, which is part of what gives it its power.

So how does this relate to the Super Bowl? Because one of the themes that’s come across in my research on how to help people find, express and hold onto their authentic voices is this concept of resiliency. In short, for someone to have the courage to bring a vulnerable, authentic voice into the world requires a willingness to risk failure. To be rejected, to come up short, to risk something or go after something with passion and have the effort fail … and still not crumble. If you can’t handle failure and loss, you can lose sight of everything except your own darkness, in tough times. You may also start to protect your vulnerable self, and end up putting up fronts, postures, or defenses to protect it. Either way, the power of an authentic voice and leadership is lost. So part of helping someone find, embrace, express, and lead with a truly authentic voice is teaching them resiliency: the art of failing … but maintaining, and getting back up again with, some modicum of grace and strength.

At the Super Bowl this year, the Carolina Panthers were heavily favored to win. Although they were officially favored by a mere 5 or 6 points, one trading manager was reported to have said he couldn’t remember a more one-sided Super Bowl betting situation, with as much as 80% of the bets favoring the Panthers. And certainly, the Panthers, with the best winning record in the NFL this year (15-1), had every reasonable expectation of being able to prevail against the Denver Broncos.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Neither team had a stellar offense day, but Denver’s defense proved tougher, with six sacks of Carolina’s star quarterback, Cam Newton, and four forced turnovers (3 fumbles and 1 interception). Two of Denver’s three touchdowns came from those fumbles. So against all expectation, the Panthers lost (24-10).

Professional athletes are, by nature and necessity, highly competitive people. They do not like to lose. Especially when it comes to the game of the year–the one win, the only win, that really, really matters, in terms of glory, fame, and history. And yet … every year, one of the two teams in the Super Bowl has to make their way to a post-game press conference and explain why it was they lost. It’s like a politician’s concession speech–dreaded and unpleasant, but a required component of the game, if you’re going to play.

Cam Newton is only 26 years old. But he is the star of the Carolina team; the face of the franchise, and the leader of the team. Where a franchise-leading teammate goes, the rest of the players follow. You hear it all the time from players, talking about the truly great captains and quarterbacks: “He’s our leader. And he really keeps us fired up, keeps us going and focused. Sets the tone and the bar for the rest of us.”

But when the Panthers lost, Newton showed up late to the post-game press conference … not in professional dress, but in a hoodie worn low over his head. He slouched low in the seat, met nobody’s eye, gave sullen, deaden, monosyllabic answers to reporters’ questions, and then walked out–before the end of the questioning. It was shocking to witness, and the sports media has echoed with critiques of it since. Not that everyone didn’t understand that losing the Super Bowl, when you expected to win, is an awfully bitter pill to swallow. But a leader is not supposed to sulk or pout when things don’t go their way. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no sullen pouting in leadership. It is your job, as a leader, to hold your head up high for the sake of everyone who’s following you.

Two days later, Newton still was unapologetic for his behavior. “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” he said as the team cleared out their lockers. “If I offended anybody, that’s cool, but I know who I am and I’m not about to conform nor bend for anybody’s expectations.”

Many of the commentators have pointed to his youth, and lack of maturity, as an explanation. But what struck me was that although Newton clearly has talent and passion, he has yet to learn resiliency. He also has a thing or two to learn in terms of putting the needs of others (his teammates and the franchise) ahead of himself. Authentic leadership isn’t about meeting your own needs ahead of, or regardless of, anyone else’s. And that includes indulging in sullen, pouting anger about a loss you’re choking on.

Maybe Newton thinks he’s being authentic. But there’s a difference between being authentic and being self-absorbed, immature, or indulgent. Authentic leadership requires knowing what matters to you, and how you feel. But like the oxygen mask you put on in case of airplane cabin pressure loss, that’s only the first step–one you attend first so you can then think clearly, prioritize, and help the people around you.

Talent and passion matter. But failure happens. So resiliency (read: the ability to face failure without retreating into a self-absorbed dark place no matter what the impact on others) also matters. Especially when it comes to leadership–and developing and harnessing the power of an authentic voice, and leading from that strength.

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