Two-time Super Bowl Champion, five-time NFL MVP and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Peyton Manning knows what it takes to lead a team to success. Over the course of his career as starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, then the Denver Broncos, the superstar athlete became as well known for his leadership skills as his football prowess.
But, just like everyone else, Manning had to learn how to lead his team the right way.
The day before the start of the 2023 NFL season, the former quarterback sat down with General Electric chairman and CEO Larry Culp at GE’s “Lean Mindset” event in Chelsea, New York, where a range of industry leaders — from professional athletes like Manning and Giannis Antetokounmpo to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and more — unpacked how to build team cultures fostering innovation, efficiency and constant improvement.
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During his conversation with Culp, Manning recalled a moment from his college football days that changed his approach to leadership for good.
Growing up, Manning’s father, Archie Manning, a quarterback who’d played in the NFL for 13 seasons, always told his son that the position came with the responsibility to step up and lead his team.
When Manning was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Tennessee, that’s exactly what he did. It was his first game; the team was losing, and Manning, initially benched, was put into play. In the huddle that followed — with some much older teammates — the young quarterback heeded his father’s advice and gave a pep talk in an attempt to inspire confidence.
One of Manning’s teammates was far from impressed. Manning said the 6’5″, 330-pound left tackle said, “Hey freshman, shut the ‘blank’ up and call the ‘blanking’ play.”
According to Manning, the “embarrassing” incident taught him a valuable lesson in leadership. “These new co-workers — these teammates — didn’t want to hear what I had to say until I earned their respect,” Manning said.
So Manning pivoted to what he dubs “silent leadership,” demonstrating through his actions — showing up for his team, staying humble and constantly striving to improve — that he could be an effective leader.
And the quarterback’s strategy worked — first on his college team, then during his NFL career.
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Despite some well-intended advice that fell flat in that first huddle, Manning’s father was still his “hero” and role model when he was a young athlete, and the former quarterback says everyone should find that person who can see them through the next challenge or setback.
“At no point should we stop being coached ourselves,” Manning said. “No matter what level of success, we all hit a plateau at some point, and you need a coach to get you back on track. That can be a coach, teacher, co-worker, boss — somebody who is honest and candid with you. Don’t ever stop going back to that person.”