I was probably the only North Carolinian flying away from the Bay Area the week of Super Bowl 50. Just before I left to fly back to North Carolina, our local NFL team, the Carolina Panthers, flew into the Bay Area.

One of the standout players of the Panthers this year was Cam Newton, the quarterback (QB). He led the Panthers to the best record in the NFL this year (15-1), and marched through the playoffs to Super Bowl 50. And Cam is a lot of things: A Heisman Trophy winner (best player in college football), QB of a national college football champion at Auburn, first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers, Rookie of the Year, and the 2015 NFL MVP. He can run, he can throw, he can do anything on the field.

He has a lot of style (just check out those Versace Yellow Barocco Zebraprint pants, which I could totally pull off too) and even does the dab. Clearly, Cam has a lot of individual talent.

While I was in the Bay Area visiting Berrett-Koehler (the publisher of my upcoming book for first-time managers and new leaders), another QB with a whole lot of talent also crossed my mind: Colin Kaepernick.

In the same draft Cam was picked #1 overall, Colin was picked #36, by the Bay Area’s San Francisco 49ers. He was their star player, even led them to a Super Bowl 3 years before Cam. And before the dab, there was Kaepernicking.

But Kaepernick’s star has since flamed out.

One of Kaepernick’s strengths was his running ability, had been all his life. Yet, to really make it as a long-standing, successful NFL QB, you can’t just rely on your own talent. You have to change and adapt to the NFL. You have to read defenses, stay in the pocket, be more of a thrower, a quarterback, than a runner. He’s relied too much on his strengths which has since become weaknesses, and never fully developed those weaknesses (being a pocket passer) necessary to make it in the NFL.

According to his former teammate, Kaepernick let his success get to his head and stopped looking at game film to study up on the opponent (an important job responsibility). Several of his teammates lost confidence in his ability to win games. And, after Jim Harbaugh (the coach who put him in as starter) left the 49ers, Kaepernick couldn’t connect with his new coach. Kaepernick was eventually benched, and has recently asked for a trade to get away from the organization.

These same types of things can derail leaders too.

In my book due out August 29, Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders, I talk about the reasons why many leaders derail in their career.  Their egos get the best of them, their success goes to their heads, their strengths become weaknesses, their weaknesses were never developed, they can’t change or adapt to new situations or people, they fail to meet business objectives.

And then there’s the biggie: they can’t move from someone who has a lot of talent, skill, and technical mastery to a person who can lead others to fulfill their own talent and potential.

3 Ways Leaders Can Avoid Derailment

What can you do to avoid derailment? In my book I suggest a few, but here are 3 relevant points:

  1. Become self-aware. In my research at CCL, I’ve come to know that the most effective leaders are the ones who are self-aware. That is, they know their strengths, their weaknesses, and they are willing to change and develop.
  2. Enhance specific skills. In my research on new leaders, I’ve discovered certain skills needed to be successful are also ones in which they are rather ineffective at doing. Many individual contributors can rely on their technical savvy, knowledge, and smarts to get ahead. Leaders however must be able to focus on others, not themselves, through:
    • effective communication,
    • influence,
    • leading team achievement, and
    • developing others.

    So, enhance those 4 specific skills.

  3. Don’t do it all by yourself. Many individual contributors rely on their own unique skills and success to get them ahead and do the work. Many fail to realize that the role of a leader is no longer to do all the work yourself anymore. Rather, you motivate others and engage others enough so that they can be their best and maximize their work effort. You don’t do their work; you lead others doing their work.

It’s so difficult to make the transition from an individual contributor who has all the technical savvy and talent in the world to get work done, to a leader who must lead others doing the work.

Right now, Colin Kaepernick has derailed, and it will be interesting to see if he can recover.

Though Newton suffered the same fate in losing the Super Bowl, time will tell if he has learned a thing or two about avoiding derailment. In his MVP year, Newton relied on a strength, his legs (10 touchdown runs) but he also had 35 touchdown passes and a career-best in passer rating (a statistical way to measure the performance of passing).

Newton seemed to have been able to change and adapt and made his teammates shine. It’s what any great leader would do, right?

What have you learned about your own career to avoid derailment? Leave a comment and let’s continue the conversation.

4 thoughts on “A Leadership Lesson from Cam Newton

  1. DJ says:

    good opservation, gratefull for the insight… greetings, keep up the good work

  2. DJ says:

    good opservation, gratefull for the insight… greetings, keep up the good work

  3. Bill,

    How would you revise or update this article in the light of the Panthers and in particular Cam’s own performance and behavior on and off the field for Superbowl 50. Might you include Peyton Manning and/or Von Miller in your update?

  4. Bill,

    How would you revise or update this article in the light of the Panthers and in particular Cam’s own performance and behavior on and off the field for Superbowl 50. Might you include Peyton Manning and/or Von Miller in your update?

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