The numbers are in, and the 2016 Super Bowl averaged 111.9 million television viewers which is good for the 3rd most-viewed television event of all time. When that many eyes are on a single event, it is bound to be the talk around the water cooler (or the 21st century version: social media) and sometimes even a fair share of controversy.
For those of you who may somehow be unaware, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers is taking a lot of heat for the way he responded after his team fell to the Denver Broncos by a score of 24-10. There are a lot of contributing factors to the way Cameron Newton is being talked about on Monday morning from his perceived arrogance, the media circus leading up to the big game, and even the Broncos’ players indictments that he is only “playing for himself.”
Whether you agree with the criticism of the admittedly talented Cam Newton or not, however, I believe there are a few lessons leaders can learn by observing his Super Bowl experience as a bit of a cautionary tale.
Someone is ALWAYS Watching
We must be keenly aware that people are always watching us. Whether we are a parent, a pastor, or a CEO, we are being watched. I suppose this should be an obvious truth, but when I see people act in ways that hurt their reputation, brand, or followers, I’m reminded of it.
Nearly 400 years ago, John Donne posited that no man is an island. His contention then, and mine now, is that we can demand autonomy and snub our nose at the masses in the name of individual expression, but the fact is our actions impact those around us, especially those we lead. Cam Newton seemed to forget that the millions of people watching were with him in that moment. Regardless of his circumstances or frustrations, those people (young and old alike) were looking to him and reading his response.
Some now think he’s immature. Some feel sorry for him. Some think he’s just misunderstood. Whatever the case, they were watching him just as someone is watching you. What message are you sending?
Ideas Expressed Have Public Consequences
All throughout the week leading up to Super Bowl 50, there were many conversations surrounding Cam’s celebrations, his perceived arrogance, and his race. It’s hard to imagine what that is like for a 26 year old athlete who makes millions of dollars playing a game. For Cam Newton, though, it seems he relished the spotlight. In various exchanges with the press, he said things like:
- “I guess you’re going to have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing.”
- “I’m an African American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
- “If you don’t want me to do [the dab dance move], then don’t let me in [to the end zone].”
At a basic level, there’s really not anything wrong with his expressing his opinion on these issues. One could say that it comes across as arrogant or slightly out of touch, but a man has a right to free speech and speaking his mind. While I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable were these quotes attributed to me, I don’t see anything overtly demeaning or insulting about any of them.
“What’s the problem, then?” you may ask. Well, the issue comes when a public figure (or any leader for that matter) decides to publicly accuse, support, or defend but then shrinks away from responsibility whenever he or she is proven wrong or opposed.
Leaders must be willing to answer for their decisions. Sometimes that will be pleasant. Sometimes it won’t. Cam was happy to use the media to build himself up but ignored them the moment things became difficult. If we are going to be public with our triumphs, we have to be willing be public with our failures. Otherwise, our families and followers will see us as out-of-touch, arrogant, and egotistical. This brings us to lesson number three.
We must learn AND teach how to fail
No one wants to fail. Failure isn’t fun. But as I see it, we have three choices:
- We can not try anything difficult for fear of failure
- Pretend we never fail and be seen as arrogant
- Be honest about our failures and try again
One of the negative consequences to the everyone-gets-a-trophy, no-one-fails-a-class culture (and there are many) is that we are not teaching the next generation how to deal with failure. Difficult circumstances build character, but if we never learn to manage failure and disappointment, we end up behaving like a spoiled child. We don’t know how to cope.
When Cam Newton decided not to own his team’s loss at the podium on Sunday, it was just the next example of how we must learn to fail well. Neglecting to do so causes those around us to question our strength and leadership. In turn, our inability to handle a difficult situation can cause others to question our ability to lead even during the good times.
Cam Newton is an incredible athlete. From all accounts, he’s a good teammate and a good friend. Because I don’t know him and am not in the Panthers’ locker room, I can’t speak for his character or the perception of those around him. What I can say, though, from observing his behavior at the end of the biggest game of his life and his premature exit from the post-game press conference, is Cam Newton could still use to learn a few things about leadership. Namely: Someone is ALWAYS Watching, Ideas Expressed Have Public Consequences, and We Must Learn AND Teach How to Fail.