The Versatile Leader – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Leaders who know when to go with their strengths but also know when their strengths lead them in the wrong direction—those are the leaders who are the most effective.” – Ryne Sherman

            Peyton Manning knew when it was time to change. In 2012, he made an emotional departure from his beloved Indianapolis Colts, due to his injuries and the fact that the Colts wanted to release him from his high-ticket bonus of $28 million. He immediately joined the Denver Broncos with a shorter contract, but in his three-year career with the Broncos, he led them to a Super Bowl win in 2016. How did he accomplish this amazing feat, with a neck injury and age going against him?

Peyton Manning was able to be flexible. In his career with the Colts, he relied on his laser like arm strength and speed for accurate throwing. With the Broncos, his physical ability wasn’t the same, due to his age; and that nagging neck injury interfered with his usual cannon like passes. He still had the accuracy the team wanted, but maybe not the speed. How he won Super Bowl 50 with the Broncos comes down to his ability to be versatile, to adjust. So, these with this win, the Broncos relied on their defense to crush their opposition. Manning relinquished his premier quarterback role and ceded to the team’s field goal kicker and the pulverizing Broncos defense.

            Manning’s desire to win and his ability to adjust and adapt lengthened his career, with yet another Super Bowl win under his belt. When he retired from football, he went on his own terms. He didn’t become a failed NFL player, winding down his career on the bench.  In March of 2016, Peyton Manning announced his retirement as a Denver Bronco, just one month after winning Super Bowl 50. At 40 years of age, he knew his time as an NFL star was done. He realized he was different now.

            This trait of versatility isn’t something to be learned in a book. In fact, most leadership books are written by people who are successful in a specific field without the benefit of having to adapt and adjust to different circumstances. The ability to adjust and adapt is a behavior trait that comes with broad experience and the ability to be self-aware. Manning knew he wasn’t the same quarterback as he was when his career began, so he and the team adjusted. The most successful leaders know when they are headed down the wrong path and aren’t afraid to delegate or switch gears. They understand when a more flexible decision needs to be made.

            Consider Lee Iacocca, the CEO who brought back Chrysler from the brink of extinction. Iacocca had an idea when he was President of Ford Motor Company. He wanted the company to introduce an alternative to the suburban fixture, the station wagon. He proposed a car built on a truck frame that could hold more people and cargo than the standard icon of suburbia. Ford thought it was a terrible idea and in 1978, Iacocca was fired. It didn’t take long for Iacocca to find a position at the ailing Chrysler Corporation. With his dream of the truck-framed car, called a minivan, Chrysler emerged from a $1.5 billion government loan, and by 1984, Chrysler tallied $2.4 billion in profits.

            Ford lost out on huge earnings because Henry Ford II couldn’t adjust and be more flexible. He didn’t want to hear Iacocca’s plan for the new vehicle. He clung to an old vision of what the customer really wanted. He didn’t want to listen to the man who introduced the Ford Mustang to the world. Iacocca became the visionary who gave America a new suburban icon. “Iacocca was able to encapsulate complicated issues into sound bites, before the term was invented, “wrote Richard Johnson, an industry journalist.

            What do Peyton Manning and Lee Iacocca have in common? They both had the ability to prioritize, to use strategic awareness and knew when to be conservative and when to become visionaries. The most successful leaders don’t cook the books, they don’t bully, they don’t do what they’ve always done. They know when to flip from one mode to another with ease. Although they were both charismatic leaders, they relied on strategic vision, good judgment, and flexibility to be successful.

            Charisma is a trap. We can be drawn to charismatic characters who lack the substance of leadership, and that is something to be cognizant of as we make our own decisions through life.

“You’ve got to remember what your priorities are. When you’re playing, what you do on the field is the most important thing.” – Peyton Manning


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.


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