This piece is part of a “faceoff” between Tom Brady’s and Eli Manning’s leadership, written by two leadership experts (and football fan rivals) for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Read the piece on Tom Brady here.
Among NFL fans, one of the hot debates at the beginning of this season was whether Eli Manning deserved to be considered an “elite” quarterback in the same league as Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and his brother, Peyton Manning. Today, as he prepares to play in his second Super Bowl in four years, the hot debate among Giants fans — I have been one for 50 years — is whether Eli Manning already stands as the greatest quarterback in the team’s history.
Truth be told, neither debate interests me much. What has fascinated me, though, and what has turned me into such a devoted Manning fan, is the quietly compelling leadership style he has displayed over his first eight seasons.
Tom Brady has the good looks, the great hair, the glamorous wife, the gaudy stats. He is what we mere mortals can never be. Manning, on the other hand, represents the best of what we can all hope to become. He is what management guru Jim Collins calls a “Level 5 Leader” — “modest and willful, shy and fearless.”
Ultimately, what matters most in leaders is not their raw talent or their personal style. What matters is how seamlessly their talent and style mesh with the organization they are leading. Great leaders in one setting would be terrible in another. Could you imagine Phil Knight at the head of Berkshire Hathaway? Or Warren Buffett running Nike?
I for one can’t imagine a better fit between individual and team than the fit between Eli Manning and Big Blue. The qualities that define him as a quarterback match perfectly with the qualities that have defined the franchise since 1925. These attributes are what make him a true Giant, and a superb leader.
First, Manning is physically tough. The Super Bowl will mark his 130th consecutive start; no active NFL quarterback can match that claim. As a team, the Giants have always stood for toughness, memorialized in that iconic photo of a bloodied Y.A. Tittle in 1964 and in the 1986 image of tight end Mark Bavaro carrying several San Francisco 49ers defenders on his back for nearly 20 yards, prompting a win that would jumpstart the rest of the season and lead to the team’s first Super Bowl victory.
Members of any organization follow leaders whose personal qualities they respect. And if you are a member of the Giants organizations—today or 50 years ago—the quality you respect above all others is toughness.
Second, Manning is incredible in the clutch. This year alone, he led the Giants to five fourth-quarter comebacks and broke the NFL record for the most fourth-quarter touchdown passes in one season. (Oh, and there’s that little matter of the last-minute drive to come from behind and win the 2008 Super Bowl against the previously undefeated Patriots.)
This is important because the Giants, as a franchise, emphasize a methodical style of play—lots of running, precision passing, minimal mistakes. As a result, almost all of their games are close games. (This year, they trailed at some point in 15 of their 16 regular-season contests!) The best leaders are at the top of their game in the most trying circumstances, and no one is better at that than Eli Manning.
Finally, as with any good leader, Manning makes everyone around him better. At the beginning of this season, Giants enthusiasts were panicked over the loss of two offensive weapons: tight end Kevin Boss and slot receiver Steve Smith. But thanks to Manning’s willingness to spend extra time working with young teammates, two players who were unknown to all but the most fervent fans, Jake Ballard and Victor Cruz, enjoyed breakout performances.
This year is no fluke. Great leaders are consistent, and a big reason for Manning’s consistency is that he gets the best out of his teammates. He is one of only two quarterbacks (the other is Drew Brees) who have passed for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of the last seven seasons. Plenty of other QBs play with bigger stars and flashier rosters. None of them has gotten as much of out their teammates as Eli Manning.
I live in Boston and I admire Tom Brady. (Heck, I even own a pair of male UGGs.) But as a lifelong New York Giants fan, I believe in Eli Manning. He’s tough, he’s good in the clutch, and he consistently makes everyone around him better. Put simply, he’s the right leader for the right team at the right time. And when it comes to evaluating leadership in any field, you can’t ask for more than that.
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