The best part of Peyton Manning's appearance at last week's Leadercast event was not his speech.
It was something he said afterward, in his sit-down with host Bill Rancic. In the process of heaping accolades on the record-setting quarterback, the host referred to the 5-time NFL MVP as an "entrepreneur." It wasn't a mistake. Manning has invested in 21 Colorado-based Papa John's franchises. He earns more than $12 million annually in endorsements. And he's canny about his personal brand. He added some edge to it with a cheeky 2007 appearance on Saturday Night Live, in which he parodied locker-room bravado and took aim at the NFL's United Way promos.
But when Rancic called him an entrepreneur, Manning said: "I'd be careful using that word, Bill. I'm trying to learn the business. I cannot give anyone in this room any type of business advice." Then he quipped that the pizza business was growing stronger, thanks to certain law changes in Colorado. There were laughs all around.
The humility and humor were almost enough to make you forget that Manning and Rancic did an end- around on one topic concerning quarterbacks and leadership: The NFL's recently-released Wells report, which sacked Manning's career-long rival, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The report reads, in part: "Based on the evidence, we also have concluded that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of [Patriots employees Jim McNally and John Jastremski] involving the release of air from Patriots game balls."
If you follow football--or if you follow personal brands--Brady's scarlet D (for deflate) is historic. Watching Manning's presentation, you wondered why he and Rancic ignored the weighty topic. Was it quarterback courtesy? Or does Manning believe the deflation story is full of hot air?
It would have been nice to find out. Manning talked about how important it is for leaders to adjust to less-than-ideal circumstances. If he refused to veer off script to address the Brady bombshell--even to briefly explain his reluctance to address it--then you could argue that Manning stayed in the pocket, in his comfort zone.
Give him points, though, for a speech that was humble, humorous, and on-point. He listed seven pieces of advice for leaders, backing each with an anecdote from his career:
1. Prepare for the best advice to fall flat when reality-tested.
When Manning was a freshman at the University of Tennessee, he was the third-string quarterback. His father, the legendary quarterback Archie Manning, told him: "Son, if you ever get into the huddle with the starters--it doesn't matter when--you be the leader and you take control."
Sure enough, the first-string QB got hurt, and the backup struggled. So the freshman Manning found himself in the huddle on the road against UCLA in 1994. Recalling Archie's advice, Manning jogged into the huddle and said to his teammates: "I know I'm a freshman, but I can take us down the field." The left tackle promptly turned to him and said: "Hey, freshman--shut the [eff] up and call the [effing] play."
"And I said, 'Yessir,'" recalled Manning.
2. Learn to thrive on being uncomfortable.
"As much as a quarterback would love a perfect pocket every time, it's not real life," said Manning. To prepare for discomfort, Manning practices what he calls awkward throws. Coaches will push a blocking dummy into his feet or simply back into him with their bodies to simulate a pass rush. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has also made an art form of practicing discomfort.
The point, for leaders and innovators, is to escape your comfort zone. You may be surprised how doing so--and testing your expertise on something new--can yield groundbreaking ideas.
3. Invest in a coach.
For Manning, that coach is David Cutcliffe, his former position coach at Tennessee. Today, Cutcliffe is the head coach at Duke. Manning likes working with him because Cutcliffe does not hesitate to yell at Manning for his mistakes. "I feel like I'm 18 again and he's 35," Manning told Rancic during the sit-down. "I'm mad at him, but I know it makes me better."
For leaders, the idea is to find someone who won't kiss your ass, no matter how much you've accomplished. And to find someone whose authority you'll respect. "Once someone stops learning to be coached, taught, or mentored, they're in big trouble," said Manning.
The other takeaway Manning has gleaned from working with Cutcliffe is a willingness to show his weaknesses to other coaches. This is easier said than done. For example, this coming season in Denver, Manning will be working with a new head coach, Gary Kubiak, a former Denver quarterback himself. Manning admitted that a part of him did not want Kubiak to watch him working on certain throws, since there's always the fear of being judged. Cutcliffe helps Manning have "the confidence to work on weaknesses."
4. Find a new way to do the old job.
At the start of the 2012 season, Manning was with a new organization--the Broncos--after 14 years with the Indianapolis Colts. He was also returning to the NFL after a year off necessitated by four neck surgeries. "My passes are not the same as before my injuries," he said. "But I've learned to adjust to my new physical state in some specific ways."
He had to find new ways to do the old job: score points. He became more proficient as a thrower of shorter routes timed with precision. He learned to get rid of the ball more quickly, so his linemen wouldn't have to hold their blocks as long. The work paid off: In 2013, at age 37, he set single-season records for touchdown passes and passing yardage.
It was the quarterback equivalent of finding a new way to deliver what a customer wants. Manning could no longer compete on the basis of arm strength the way he did when he was young. So he became more efficient. The job is scoring touchdowns. A TD is still worth six points, whether Manning achieved it through a single 60-yard bomb or several shorter throws. "I've looked for different ways to move the chains and put us in a position to win," he said.
5. Become a master observer.
Manning describes this as a "willingness to stop and look at things no one else has bothered to look at. A focus on things normally taken for granted." In football terms, this amounts to watching tons of game film, mastering the patterns of the Broncos' and their opponents' plays--and therefore equipping himself to identify the anomalies that could lead to a competitive advantage.
The business ramifications here are plain: Given your experiences and knowledge, what can you see that others--including your competitors--cannot? Steve Jobs studied calligraphy. When he looked at the computers of the late 70s and early 80s, it was apparent to him that the world of PCs would greatly benefit from the application of aesthetic principles. In hindsight, the insight seems obvious. At the time, he was seeing what no one else was seeing. "Helen Keller said that some people see with eyes but have no vision," noted Manning.
6. Align your individual goals with team goals.
The quarterback position is full of stats measuring a player's ability to throw and run. Not all of them correspond to team success. Manning said he emphasized the individual goals of completion percentage and touchdown passes because they "help our team win."
In other words, don't set goals for yourself that, if achieved, will lead to only personal accolades.
7. Understand the sustained power and influence flowing from your relationships with others.
Whether speaking about teammates, coaches, or family, Manning was intent on pointing out that his success did not come in vacuum. It sounds a little clichéd, but other people had helped him every step of the way, and his biggest joy was working with and helping others, in and out of football. "You can have the swagger of a winner," he said, "but never be convinced that your greatest accomplishments are made alone."