Football star Peyton Manning discusses leadership at PMA Fresh Summit
Photo: Patrick Williams

Football star Peyton Manning discusses leadership at PMA Fresh Summit

At the association’s annual event, the retired quarterback defined what it means to him to be a leader and teammate.

October 24, 2018

On Oct. 19, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) welcomed Peyton Manning, two-time National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl-winning quarterback and the NFL’s only five-time MVP, to speak at its Fresh Summit Conference & Expo, which the association held this year in Orlando, Florida.

In his speech, Manning touched on the themes of leadership, teamwork, and preparing for and bouncing back from challenges. The retired quarterback, speaking in the inflective accent of his native New Orleans, peppered his speech with numerous jokes and anecdotes, as well as lessons that the produce industry could glean from his 18 years in the NFL and four years playing college football.

Manning’s mentors

Manning’s own mentors ranged from his father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, to Tony Dungy, the younger Manning’s head coach for several years when he played for the Indianapolis Colts.

In front of the PMA audience, Manning recalled that his high school coach used to use malapropisms like ones for which baseball catcher Yogi Berra was famous. (Berra said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”) Manning said his coach told him, “‘Peyton, when you're sprinting out to the left now, it'd be a heck of a lot easier if you could throw the ball left-handed — if you were amphibious.’ I think he meant ambidextrous — I never asked.”

“Buying in” to different coaching styles allowed Manning to succeed throughout his career, he said. In football or in any business or organization, the best leaders need to always learn more. “An old coach told me once, ‘You either get better or you get worse every day — you don't stay the same,’” he said.

Leaders must also get to know the members of their teams well — what motivates and upsets them, Manning said. “Believe me when I say that authority is not leadership. Leadership isn't about muscle,” he said. “You can't bend others with your will.” Rather, he said, leadership is persuading people “to align with your thinking in pursuit of a common goal.”

Preparing for anything

Manning admitted that he had weaknesses as a quarterback, including not being the fastest. “I had a coach tell me once that I couldn't run out of sight in a week,” he said, adding jokingly under his breath, “That was nice.”

But a theme that Manning kept coming back to was how relentlessly he prepared for whatever the game threw at him. “Whatever the outcome of a game that I played in, I can honestly say I never left that field feeling like I could have done more to prepare myself for that game,” he said. One time he submerged his hand in a bucket of ice water “to approximate the frigid temperatures of the upcoming game.” Another time he requested the Colts equipment staff to lie down on the field in practice, after he played in a game in which he tripped over another player and it cost the team a touchdown.

Manning said he used to repeatedly ask his coaches, about hypothetical situations. He questioned if a lineman on his team would be able to block a defensive player on the opposing team in the event of a blitz — when multiple players on defense try to simultaneously tackle the quarterback. In at least one situation, Manning said a coach chalked this up to the quarterback ‘chasing ghosts.’ “He said, ‘Peyton, you're wasting everybody's time,’” Manning recollected. “I said, ‘Coach, are you back there taking the hit? Because I'm back there taking the hit.’” He said his teammates enjoyed this back-and-forth. “But this taught me a valuable lesson — that if you don't know how to solve a problem from every possible angle, I don't think you're adequately prepared,” he said.

Winning with a team

In 2011, Manning had multiple surgeries to fix a neck injury, and he missed the NFL season that year. A right-handed quarterback, Manning suffered nerve damage in his right arm and right hand. He didn’t know if he could play in the NFL again.

Manning’s wife, Ashley — with whom he has 7-year-old twins, Marshal and Mosley — told him at the time he should start thinking differently, and that’s what he did. With the support of family, coaches, doctors and teammates, he signed on with a new team — the Denver Broncos — for the 2012 season. “I think because I was adaptable and flexible, that I can play quarterback in a different way, allowed me to be flexible and join a new team and learn their new system, and still remain an effective quarterback,” he said.

Not only was Manning effective, but he was a champion, winning Super Bowl 50 with his team in the 2015 season. Along the way, though, Manning felt he had to earn the respect of his new teammates. “Even though I played for 14 years, I had not played with these new teammates, these new coworkers,” he said. “I went in there very humble.”

Contrary to what many people believe, a football team’s offense doesn’t rest on just the quarterback, Manning said. And as important as the players are, it’s not just the players who are on the team. It’s the people who are behind the scenes. Manning noted that this same mindset translates to any company or organization. “There are people who get zero credit, they get zero attention, but they are just as important as the CEO,” he says.

Ultimately, Manning said his greatest takeaway from his career is not specific to the game of football itself, as many people would expect. It’s the relationships he has made with people. “Despite some of the individual honors that I've received over the years, there's been nothing I've been more proud of than being able to call myself ‘teammate,’” he said.