8 Leadership Lessons From Quarterback Gurus

Superb business wisdom often comes from non-business sources.

The definitive example is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a 2,000-year-old book on military strategy which still resonates with entrepreneurs. A comparable crossover is about to happen with Bruce Feldman’s new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks. Football fans will buy it expecting insider’s access to the high-stakes world of quarterback coaching. What they’ll get–in addition to high-concept analysis of football’s most vital position–is a trove of insights on leadership and talent development.

I recently spoke to Feldman about his book, which is due out the last week of October. If you’re a college football fan, Feldman needs no intro: He’s covered the sport for two decades, currently for Fox Sports and previously at CBS and ESPN. And let me be clear: Leaving aside its leadership lessons, The QB will blow your mind in a football sense. You’ll open it feeling one way about renowned quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Johnny Manziel, and Jameis Winston–and you’ll leave it knowing more. Here are eight business lessons I culled from my advanced review copy:

1. Use “self-talk” to find your confidence. This pearl comes from high-performance psychology coach Dr. Michael Gervais, who’s worked with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and six Olympic gold medalists. Gervais is on the staff of Elite 11, a nationwide development program and competition for top high school quarterbacks.

Elite 11’s lead instructor, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, is a Gervais protege. Dilfer encourages his pupils to find the mental space where their self-talk can create confidence. Even if that space is somewhat fictional.

For example, prior to his acceptance at Elite 11, David Blough (currently a freshman at Purdue University) had not received a single scholarship offer. Thus he came to the 2013 competition–which takes place at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oreg.–with a motivational chip on his shoulder.

Blough excelled in early drills but slacked toward the end, claiming he was unaccustomed to front-running. Dilfer advised Blough to tune out the successful realities–and re-enter the world where he was a snubbed, hungry recruit. He told Blough: “Don’t you ever buy into the fact that you should live in reality. You keep living in this pretend world, because that’s where you thrive.”

2. Get out of your comfort zone–even during practice. Top quarterbacks and their gurus try to breed real-game chaos into practice settings. One example comes when Rodgers, the megastar quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, visits the 2013 Elite 11 and watches Blough during a drill. “Well, what do you think I need to work on the most?” Blough asks. Rodgers replies:

You’re staring down your target. You’re throwing one-on-ones, so, of course, you’re gonna stare down your receiver, but challenge yourself. You’ve got all the arm talent in the world. You know you’re throwing to this guy, but why not stare down the middle of the field and know what timing he’s going to be on, and then, on your last step, look over at him and deliver the ball. Find a way to challenge yourself even if it’s on a little routine drill or routes-on-air (against no defenders).”

Aside from the chief takeaway of Rodgers’ advice–challenge yourself–note the manner in which he delivers it: He compliments Blough and says he grasps why Blough had not been challenging himself previously. In other words, he teaches without reprimanding or preaching.

3. Forgive the young for their youth. George Whitfield has famously worked with Manziel, the 2012 Heisman trophy winner, as well as NFL standouts Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger. In one incident in the book, Manziel was 20 minutes late for a workout with Whitfield. Rather than getting angry, Whitfield took the high road. He told Feldman:

Instead of barking at him and lighting him up, I had to remember that he was only nineteen. His brain must have hurt from how fast he was growing. Of all the people in his world, I know that I’m going to have to have some range and some flexibility and some rigidness. So you treat him [the way you would] your kid brother.

There’s more to Whitfield’s reaction than meets the eye. While his reaction is genuinely empathetic, the coach also knows what a valuable branding tool it is for him to list Manziel as a client, Feldman told me.

“Lots of coaches are ‘My way or the highway’ guys. Whitfield is very savvy when it comes to his brand and what he’s connected to,” Feldman said. “So there’s no doubt he knows that having Newton, Luck for a few weeks, and Manziel–that’s the greatest billboard he can have.”

So the lesson here is not only to have empathy for the mistakes of your young stars. It’s to remember that their happiness can affect the big-picture goals of your business.

4. Use metaphors to explain complex ideas. Whitfield has a nonpareil ability to explain complex physical movements in accessible metaphors. Feldman writes:

When he prodded (right-handed) Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook to pull his lead elbow (left arm) through in his throwing motion, Whitfield crouched behind the Spartan standout and told him, “Just imagine there’s a midget talking shit right here. You don’t want to decapitate him. You just wanna make him spit his gum out.”

The book is filled with examples of Whitfield’s verbal dexterity. At various times he uses references to Michael Jackson’s dance moves, Rocky Balboa’s complacency, or the act of paying for a restaurant meal to clarify an aspect of quarterbacking. From such verbal gymnastics come great teaching moments.

5. Screen performers for their ability to overcome adversity. This is hardly a groundbreaking observation, but time and again The QB is filled with examples of star quarterbacks who were at one time overlooked. Rodgers, for example, got zero scholarship offers out of high school. Tom Brady was the 199th overall selection in the NFL Draft. Even Manziel carries a grudge for the way most Texas colleges overlooked him after his stalwart high school career.

It was one reason Blough, himself an overlooked Texan, appreciated Manziel’s speech at the 2013 Elite 11. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and you can see it in everything he does, and that’s exactly how I’m trying to be,” Blough told Feldman.

6. Hack the minds of young people. At the Nike store in downtown Portland, there was a store event where both Manziel and team sports immortal Bo Jackson were present. The blue-chip high school recruits and Elite 11 participants mobbed Manziel–and all but ignored Jackson. (Clearly they’d never seen this Jackson highlight reel.)

One of the teenagers told even Feldman that he’d never heard of Jackson, but that Manziel was “a legend.” He wasn’t the only one. “These kids couldn’t care less about Jackson,” Feldman told me, recalling the scene. “It was all, ‘Hey Johnny, hey Johnny.’ That was startling.”

It’s a reminder that sports marketing sometimes has little to do with sports merit. While Manziel, as a Heisman winner, had a legendary college career, his on-field achievements are as yet nothing compared to Jackson’s, who had several eye-popping seasons in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. But that didn’t matter to the current crop of high schoolers, since Manziel was someone they’d watched growing up. Jackson? He was a figment from the late 80s and early 90s. He was their parents’ hero.

7. To get the most out of metrics, add perspective to raw numbers. Of all the coaches he encountered in researching the book, the most fascinating to Feldman was Tom House, who first came to fame not as a quarterback guru but as an advisor to baseball pitchers. (House himself is a former MLB pitcher.)

As a matter of course, House dives deeper into commonplace metrics. For example: An 86-mph fastball down the middle seems like a 92-mph pitch to the hitter when you throw it up and in; likewise, it can seem like an 80-mph pitch when you throw it down and away.

Thus the smartest pitchers–and the smartest evaluators of pitching talent–grasp that a pitch’s placement can enhance or detract from on-paper velocity. If you were only gauging arm talent by the number on the radar gun–and not the pitcher’s ability to consistently locate pitches–you’d be making a big mistake.

8. Recognize that talent comes in diverse forms. Another of House’s insights is his recognition that there is not one correct way to throw a football. How you’ll best throw it depends on your own physiognomy and mental wiring. While there are some commonalities in all great throwers–eyes level, release point, location of the non-throwing hand–their deliveries differ.

Likewise, great quarterbacks come in different Myers-Briggs personality types too. Jonathan Niednagel, an expert on the brain types of athletes, tweaked the 16 Myers-Briggs types to form his own terminology, using numbers 1 through 16. While Niednagel believes that (in his terminology) a No. 5 (an ESTP in Myers-Briggs) has the best makeup to be a successful quarterback, he admits that other types have made it big. Manning is a No. 5. Manziel, Niednagel believes, is also No. 5. But Brees and Brady are No. 9 types (ENFPs in Myers-Briggs).

The lesson here is not to seek a certain personality type. It’s to use your knowledge of the talent’s personality type to become a better communicator with the talent.

Those are just eight of the business lessons you’ll find in The QB. There are many more. To be sure, it’s a book that will enhance your skills in evaluating, developing, and leading young talent in the workplace. And then, when the week is over, it will help you enjoy your football over the weekend.

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