Tom Brady is the model of what a modern leader should be. Believe me, as a Dallas Cowboy fan(atic), it pains me to write that. However, I’ve come to realize that quarterbacks like Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Dak Prescott combine timeless virtues of sacrifice, courage, and leadership by example along with Nate Silver-like data processing skills. To succeed on the football field these days, QBs have to be one part Achilles and one part algorithm.
Let’s look at the traditional tool kit first. The demands on leaders evolve, but some elements remain constant. A team — or an army — will only follow someone into battle if they are inspired by their sacrifice, courage, and example. QBs checks these boxes.
While you tune in on Sunday, remember that these players have been preparing for this moment all year and — in some senses — their entire lives. From their winter off-season training regimens to summer training camp, they’ve continuously pushed, lifted, and iced their bodies to be physically ready for this game. Sometimes, the sacrifice is more about what they don’t do. Boston.com once interviewed Tom Brady’s personal chef, who revealed that he eats a diet so strict that it consists of 80 percent vegetables — and doesn’t include dairy, coffee, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, white sugar, white flour, or salt!
Elite QBs have to go further than simply lifting weights and eating right, though. Every week, they invest hours reviewing film of their performances, as well as those of their upcoming opponents, in an effort to gain an edge that will prove decisive in a pivotal moment. Peyton Manning, perhaps the most cerebral QB of all time, was legendary for his commitment to film room study. If he played on Sunday afternoon, he was already dissecting his play later that same evening.
So modern QBs have to marry preparation with perspiration — but that alone is not enough to succeed. They also have to be the bravest men on the field.
Imagine a lightning-fast 290 lb JJ Watt bearing down on you with malicious intent — and then realize that there could be 3 other equally hulking defensive linemen coming behind him, along with a few others if you’re facing an all-out blitz (“bringing the house”, in football parlance). Then picture yourself standing resolutely in a rapidly collapsing “pocket” (the small space created by your offensive linemen blocking the behemoths) and waiting until your receiver hits his mark to throw the ball — even though you know you’re about to get crushed. Now get up, dust yourself off … and be ready to do that again and again — for the next 3 hours.
Showing courage is one way that QBs lead by example. but there are other, sometimes even more effective means to inspire your teammates.
Lead by Example
Sports Illustrated had a much-discussed cover story a few years ago about Brady’s fanatical training and preparation, and out of it came this telling anecdote. ” When Rodney Harrison played with Brady, the safety showed up at 6:40 a.m. to lift weights. “Good afternoon,” Brady said to him. So the next day Harrison showed up at 6:30. “Good afternoon.” Then 6:20. Then 6:10. Then 6. “Good afternoon” each time, until Harrison finally said, “Screw you, Tom. I’m not coming in any earlier.”
It’s not just what they do in the days and weeks before the game, but also what they master in the seconds before each snap, that mark signal callers as model 21st century leaders.
Process Big Data in seconds
When QBs step up to the line of scrimmage, you might think that not much is going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. After having just called the play in the huddle (something “simple”, like flip right duo X motion fake roll 98 block pass special), the QB visualizes each route up to 5 receivers will run while simultaneously comparing the call with the “look” the defense is giving him. He has to “read” the defensive alignment facing him, sift through his hours of film preparation to see if he recognizes a certain tendency that can predict what it means, and then determine if his play is the right one of TWO (typically QBs have a back-up play call for each down), make a decision (keep play 1 or switch to play 2) and then execute the necessary adjustments to his player formation and protection scheme. Sound complicated? Now realize that all of this happens in 10 seconds. QBs today have to be able to think like IBM’s Watson, except that they’re doing it in front of 11 men trying to kill them and — on Super Bowl Sunday — a hundred million watching them.
Believe it or not, that’s the “easy” part.
Make great decisions consistently under stress and physical duress
In the face of this enormous pressure, 80,000 screaming, hostile fans, and howling winds and snow if you’re playing in Green Bay in November, Dak Prescott now has about 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped to drop back, avoid getting crushed by the other team’s mastodons, and throw a football 25 yards downfield to a point where he believes his receiver will be — all the while threading the needle between multiple layers of defensive coverage.
Imagine doing this for three hours while trying to succeed, but almost as importantly also avoiding disaster. On that topic …
Remember the Lesson, Forget the Mistake
… QBs have to have short memories. When they make a crushing error — like throwing a drive-killing interception — they don’t have the luxury of wallowing in self-pity. Great QBs quickly learn the lesson from that miscue — don’t throw into a 2 deep zone! — and then have to “forget” about it. If you’re still preoccupied with that pick the next time you go out on the field, you’re even more likely to make another mistake.
Your job on Sunday: Appreciate the Artistry
Great QBs are the new prototype CEOs. As you dive into the chips and dip this weekend, take a minute to appreciate the hidden complexity of what you’re watching. Marvel at the months of sacrifice, the days of constantly leading by example, the hours of preparation, the sixty minutes to avoid a killer mistake, and the mere seconds these men have to digest all that information in order to make it all come together into one magical moment: Touchdown!