As I sat across from the company president in a beautiful conference room the light reflected off of the marble boardroom table. I was there to tell him that things were not well in his company. I had been hired to “take the pulse” of the employees by conducting focus groups. It turns out the fissures in the employee base were deeper than any of us had guessed. He peered at me as he sipped a cup of coffee and picked apart a blueberry muffin. “I’m hoping it’s not all bad,” he stated. I could see the worry etched on his face, after all, this company was his pride and joy – something he had created and nurtured from the ground up. People in the company knew the stories well of how he went without, fighting to make payroll and keep the lights on, sacrificing his personal life, and fending off competitors along the way. He was now the leader of a multi-million-dollar business that somehow seemed to keep stumbling over its own success.

Over the next two hours, we went over all of the feedback – both positives and negatives. Themes that seemed consistent and not just “one-off” accounts. Eventually, we got to some hot button issues. I say hot button because when I relayed some of the feedback, I became angry at his reaction. As many of you know, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because whatever is happening in the room is stepping on your own value system. Initially, I assumed he would be mortified by what he heard from his employees. “There isn’t air conditioning in some of the warehouses.” Silence. “The workers actually have to step outside to get some air so they don’t pass out and then go back into work.” Silence. “It is limiting productivity, not to mention the morale of the staff.” A cold stare. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He replied, “When I was coming up through the ranks in this industry, I endured those same conditions, why should they be any different?”  Wow.  The I-walked-five-miles-through-the-snow argument.

Power is a fundamental force in life, something infants can recognize as early as 10-months old.  For as long as people have formed groups, human relationships have been structured by hierarchy, dominance, status, and control.  Power permeates all aspects of our social interactions with friends, loved ones, family members, and co-workers.  Indeed many of the problems we struggle with within the workplace – the issues that make work-life arduous and painful, whether you are a CEO or an entry-level employee – are problems related to power.  Honestly, in my humble opinion, the success of every endeavor depends on how leaders use their power, and whether they can effectively utilize the authority of their roles.

A Word of Caution
If power were being marketed by a pharmaceutical company it would have some serious side effects listed. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can make you forget where you came from. Many of you may have known people afflicted with power like this over the course of your career.  People that worked their way up through the ranks, only to end up seemingly cold and out of touch with the realities of the real challenges frontline employees experience.  But can power alter the brain’s neural pathways over time and, if so, is there anything that we can do about it? The historian Henry Adams metaphorically described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”. Recent research may actually back up that quote.

In a study conducted by UC Berkeley, it was found that individuals in positions of power (participants in studies spanning two decades) acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. The research also found that powerful people performed worse when trying to identify what someone was feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.

One of the most troubling parts of the study found that leaders in power, over time, had stopped mimicking others. In the world of psychology, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring happens in our brain and, for the most part, without our awareness.  For the non-powerful participants, mirroring worked fine. The neural pathways they would use fired strongly. What about the more powerful groups? Less so. Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. Power, the research shows, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. As far as work goes, this might help with efficiency, but it has a detrimental effect on being able to pick up social cues.  Laughing when others laugh or grimacing when others grimace helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into what they are feeling.  When leaders lose the ability to mirror, they lose important data that allows them to connect with others.  This is the “power paradox”.   It seems that once some of us have power, we lose much of the emotional intelligence we utilized to be in that leadership position in the first place.

Staying Humble
The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power.  “Hubris syndrome,” as defined in a recently published article, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”  Many are guilty of this…even the great leaders.  Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, held him accountable for his hubris and had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner.  You are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas will be forthcoming.” So it really does afflict the best of us and is definitely a cautionary tale.

Now, I have told you one of the big potential pitfalls that come with leadership. So how do we avoid the possibility of these changes that come with power?  The answer is simple.  Stay grounded.  Have people who tether you to reality and challenge your thinking.  Monitor your mood. Stay connected to the real work your people do day in and day out.  Stay out of the ivory tower.  Surround yourself with “no” people.  Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up.  Take failures personally. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the WHY of what you do every day.  As one of my favorite coaching clients once asked, “Don’t our people deserve great leaders?”

This last week I attended the annual professional association conference that I’ve been a part of since 2008.  I look forward to it every year seeing the smiling faces of so many colleagues. One of the keynotes we were lucky enough to hear from this year was award-winning reporter, editor, and producer Dwayne Bray of ESPN.  Over the past 20 years, he has written and produced some of the most important sports stories.  As we listened to stories about Bryant Gumbel and Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, among others…then he began to take questions.

One of the questions asked was about the lack of diversity at the top of the NFL coaching ranks.  Just to be clear, 70% of the players are black, there is one black coach and no black team owners. Just today I caught the story of the football commissioner talking about this exact subject. As I listened, I became curious about the NFL as a business.  As many of you know, I am a huge football fan…enough that my “girl’s” trip this January was going to see the LA Rams play the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in LA. It was a blast and, of course, this weekend we will all be watching the Superbowl! But as I paused and put on my consultant hat…I asked myself “Within this organization called the National Football League, what do they get right or wrong?” and “How did the two high-performing teams within this organization playing in the Superbowl rise to the top?”

When you begin to really analyze an organization’s goals and strategy, one of the first things you want to look at it is Core Values.  What you want to see are values that really resonate, aren’t stale, and that live in the language of the leaders of the organization.  This is what was posted on the National Football League’s website:

1.    Respect – Everyone matters.  Everyone contributes. We celebrate diverse opinions and perspectives.
2.    Integrity – We do the right thing when no one is looking, and even if it’s unpopular when they are looking.
3.    Responsibility to Team – As a team, we support one another.  We depend on one another. Everything we do has a consequence for someone else.
4.    Resiliency – Everyone matters. Everyone contributes.  We turn losses into lessons.

Overall, if this was an organization that I was consulting with, I would say these seem consistent with what you hear NFL leaders aspire to.  But I would want to understand how they “live” in the organization by looking at policies, talent management practices, community outreach, and their strategy.

Now, just like any organization…sometimes the NFL gets it right and sometimes they get it wrong.  Over time, some of the charges that people have leveled at the NFL is that it favors the owners over the players and fans (ticket prices), that they play favorites with some player and team infractions, they lack making player’s safety a priority, and their stand on player protests, drugs, and domestic violence is not where it should be.  It didn’t feel right to talk about the Superbowl hype without mentioning these issues as well.  These problems are something that many organizations struggle with and try to find a way to overcome.

The most important part of any organization are the teams that operate within it.  This Sunday we will see the top two teams in the NFL organization battle it out on the field.  Those two teams have a couple of great quarterbacks in Joe Burrows for the Bengals and Matthew Stafford for the Rams. As you have probably heard from me before, leaders are about 70% of the impact on the culture of a team.  So, what are some of the traits that got these two leaders to the highest stage?

As I researched these two quarterbacks there were three traits that really set each of them apart.  When we work within companies, we are constantly looking for those people either already in the organization or those looking to be hired that are high potential, high performing individuals.  The three traits I chose to highlight here are more hard-wired in nature vs. those developed over time.  As you read through this, be thinking about what traits you bring to the table in your own roles.

Matthew Stafford is the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He played college football at Georgia, where he was a first-team All-American, and was selected first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2009 NFL Draft.  These are the top three strengths he is bringing into the Superbowl:

1.    Focused 
As the Rams begins preparation for this weekend’s game with walk-through practices, Stafford is shutting out the Super Bowl hype, leaving ticket requests to his wife Kelly and the team, and keeping his mind focused solely on the game. “Dive into the football as much as you possibly can,” he said of his approach. “My biggest thing is, don’t look at the calendar. Whatever the day is, go out there and execute as best you can.” This is nothing new for Stafford.  Over the years, he has always stated that his only focus is his family and football.
2.    Humble 
Those who are closest to leaders know what their strengths are.  The Ram’s head coach, Sean McVay recently reflected on Stafford.  “I think one of the unique things about Matthew as you get to know him is, he’s just always being himself.  I heard Dan Orlovsky, ESPN analyst, speak about Matthew. He said he has got a great way about him when he walks into a room.  You know he is THE man, but he can also be one of the guys.  He’s got great confidence, but also a sense of humility that comes with that. He just has a great feel for people and that’s just who he is.” On top of that he and his wife, Kelly, have quietly given away millions of dollars to education, food banks, and social justice causes.
3.    Courageous 
Throughout Stafford’s entire career, he has exhibited courage and competitive spirit through his play on the field while enduring numerous injuries. A Lion’s former trainer to Stafford said “Over the course of my time in sports medicine, he stands out for always maintaining selflessness and a professional approach to game preparation and play on game day.” He isn’t afraid to put himself on the line for the team. He also isn’t afraid to speak up. Running back Cam Akers said Stafford is a great communicator and leader, and it’s not difficult to understand what he’s trying to say or what he’s trying to accomplish as a result. “He’s very clear-cut,” Akers said. “He’ll let you know what he wants you to do, or what you’re doing wrong or what you’re doing right.”  Not to mention the fact that he and his wife, Kelly, mother to his four children, courageously battled her brain tumor diagnosis several years ago.

Joe Burrow is the quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL and was the first player to win the Heisman Trophy, win the National Championship, and go 1st overall. He was chosen by the Bengals as first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.  Here are his top three strengths:

1.    Calm
There is a certain image that Burrow portrays. He’s inherently cool. And by cool, not trendy or aloof. According to everything I read,  he presents as entirely unselfconscious while remaining self-aware. Burrow moves through the world without fear — the Bengals made it this far even though their quarterback was sacked more than any other QB this season. He takes it upon himself to scramble and extend plays. “We never take him for granted,” his coach Zac Taylor said. “But there’s a lot of impressive things he does that maybe aren’t as impressive to us anymore because we’re just used to it, and it’s kind of his standard, his greatness. But again, we need to step back and always take a moment to appreciate what we’ve got there at that quarterback position.

2.    Tough
Toughness is one of Burrow’s best leadership qualities. “I think Joe thinks deep down he’s a linebacker,” said the Bengal’s head coach Zac Taylor. “That’s what he thinks. And that’s kinda how he plays sometimes, and I gotta hold my breath when he plays that way. But that’s just the mentality he has. And he’s the son of a coach. He’s grown up around football, he’s grown up around being tough and then understanding what toughness is, how that can help you as a leader. “You don’t always have to just be the most vocal guy yelling and screaming at everybody. You lead through toughness; you lead through knowing what you’re going to do and accomplishing the task that you’re supposed to accomplish. And Joe does that. He’s our linebacker playing quarterback right now, and the team really responds and feeds off of that.”

3.    Confident 
It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to be confident on the field.  But, Burrow is also confident and strong off the field.  Burrow consistently speaks out against social and racial injustice in America. “How can you hear the pain Black people are going through and dismiss it as nothing,” he tweeted. “How can you hear the pain and respond with anything other than ‘I stand with you.’” He really does have that attitude of feeling confident in himself , taking a stand, and not really caring what others think.  “It never seems like it is forced,” Sam Hubbard, defensive end, said of Burrow’s confidence. “It was always natural, just his leadership and the way he carries himself. So I think from day one, when he walked into the building, people could tell that this was our franchise quarterback.”

In the end, whether you watch the Superbowl this weekend for the football, the commercials, or the half-time show, I ask you to reframe the NFL as a business.  What do you see them doing well or not so well?  How do you stack up in leadership skills (not football skills!) with those high performers on the field?  Is there something you need to tweak or change within your organization or team to be more effective? Someone once said, “In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goalposts are”.  Hope you have a wonderful weekend and let’s go Rams!