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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Leadership Lesson for Cam Newton: Communicating Under Stress

    So Cam Newton had a bad day Sunday.  It happens.  But his bad day has turned into a bad week because of his actions at a press conference following his loss in Super Bowl 50.  It's been controversial, to say the least, since there are people who empathize with the MVP's behavior after a tough and painful defeat and others who think he behaved badly after walking off in the middle of a press conference.  Regardless of what side you're on, there are lessons to be learned in communicating when under duress.  Cam can learn them and so can the rest of us.  If I had to coach him in how to handle those difficult moments, I'd recommend the following:
     1)  Slow down.  Take a deep breath and then express your emotions honestly.  No doubt about it, Cam came into the Super Bowl feeling confident he and the Panthers would go home with the trophy.  He was absolutely right in thinking that way.  After all, how can you go into a high stakes game like the Super Bowl anticipating you might lose?  I admire his confidence.  But the tough part of being center stage in such a high-profile contest is if that loss does come, you're still required to talk about it to the entire world when you've hardly had time to process the loss.
     I think it's unfair to expect a competitor like Cam to take such a devastating situation and conduct business as usual.  This was not the usual game.  Too much was riding on it--pride, history, hard work, success, everybody else's expectations, everything!  Win or lose, at the end of a game this intense is raw emotion.  He'd hardly had time to review what went wrong in his mind before he was being bombarded with questions about what went wrong on the field.  He'd had barely a moment to reconcile his feelings when he was thrust into the spotlight and had to face his longtime detractors as I'm sure many gloated.  So I would advise anyone in a leadership position who has to stand before a crowd and face down your mistakes, your failures, and your pain that you breathe first and take your time before speaking and reacting to questions or expectant stares.  Then verbalize your despair.  His response could've sounded something like this:
     I know you have a lot of questions about what happened out there.  I do too.  I haven't had much time to think it through yet because all I know at this moment is that the agony of defeat is real.  I'm extremely disappointed in this loss.  I feel a heavy weight on my shoulders, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.
     Moments like these require transparency and sincerity.  People can appreciate it.  We've all been there at some point, and this kind of honesty can help people better relate to what he's going through.
     2)  Address the challenges, issues, and failures directly.  Even though he didn't have time to dig deep into the many gaps and shortcomings of his or his teammates, he should have had a sense of what went wrong.  It was obvious to the rest of us who were watching, and yes, even to the press that were firing off questions.  They knew the answers.  They just needed to hear them from him.  He was the man of the hour, and he held his own perspective that everyone was anxious to hear.  Owning whatever fault existed at the time can shut down the haters.  His narrative could've gone a little something like this:
     Until we've had a chance to debrief everything, I can't pinpoint any one thing in particular, but I know that I had a hard time delivering under that Broncos defense.  They did an excellent job of shutting me down and preventing me from being my best.  And isn't that what they were supposed to do?
     Complimenting the competitor when they deserved it shows humility and good sportsmanship.  It might taste like vinegar in his mouth to say it, but it would've done wonders for increasing his equity as a leader.  In corporate organizations when a product or service falters (i.e. a restaurant that sickens its patrons due to bacteria in the food), the head of that organization has to grit his or her teeth and admit fault.  They've got to go before the public and say they messed up somehow, and they're going to make it right.  People develop faith and admiration in leaders who acknowledge their shortfalls without excuse or defensiveness.
     3) And finally, I would advise Cam to finish it all on a high note.  After acknowledging what went wrong, he should then focus on what went right.  And yes, there were things he and the Panthers did right.  The Panthers' defense was stellar.  There were individual performances (Luuuukkeee!) that should be recognized.  Cam could've left his fans looking forward to next year by assuring them that once the team gets back to the drawing board, they'll have a winning plan ready next season.  Fans believe it already, and they certainly are proud of Cam and the Panthers.  I know I am.  So his final comments could've gone like this:
     Though we have some work to do to finish the job next time, I have no doubt we'll be back better than ever.  This was quite a learning experience for all of us.  We're winners.  Losing is tough to accept when you haven't had to face it much in a season.  But we have a first-rate team with the best fans in the world pulling for us, and we can't wait to get back out there to do it all again.  But the next time, we're bringing home the trophy!
     It's all good, Cam.  We're looking forward to your press conference next year.  For those of us living in Panther Nation, we've got a strong feeling that the press conference after SB51 will find you with that winning smile back on your face.