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10 Things Cam Newton, the African American, can teach executives about leadership

Author: Dr. Lawrence James
Partner at RHR International
Member of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches (

Recent opinions surrounding Cam Newton’s statements are the latest in a string of controversies that have surrounded him since he was in college. For those who missed it – the latest controversy surrounds many people’s negative reactions to Cam and his on field behavior; like dancing after touchdowns, smiling and laughing, and giving footballs to little kids in the stands. Addressing the controversy, he said, “I am an African-American quarterback; that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare to me.” The reactions to Cam may fall into many camps, but it is likely that Race and unconscious bias is one bit of fuel for these reactions. A recent study of college students has shown the real impact of unconscious bias on perceptions of competency and behavior, as reported in The Atlantic magazine.

However, there is much to be learned from Cam Newton – the leader – that should not go unnoticed amidst the controversy. Here are things we can take away from Cam Newton, African-American & Leader:

Take risks – Success is born of taking risks. However, these risks need to be mediated with some strong belief that success is attainable. All the clichés apply: no risk, no reward etc. the key to taking risks is not only a belief in yourself and your ideas, but an ability to see opportunities where others might not – and seizing upon them. Often this is garnered from study; by scanning the internal & external landscapes, including areas outside your business, you can find ideas and inspirations. It is important to ensure the payback offsets the risk; a risk taker without payback is just a risk.

Be decisive – The distance between success and failure is a millimeter, a razor’s edge, a thread with little room for failure and no room for indecision. To waffle is the absolute worst thing in leadership. The NFL position of quarterback may be the poster child for the need for quick and decisive action; the team looks to the QB, as a leader, and wants to follow his lead, but will only do so if they believe he is sure of the actions he is taking. Sharp crisp thinking (clarity) is paramount, but in the moment that clarity is born of study and deep understanding of your topic/subject matter. It is not just the ability to connect the dots, but also the ability to act decisively on that knowledge. That is how winners in any field beat the competition.

Know yourself & be yourself – Authenticity in the workplace is elusive for all leaders. It may be even more so for leaders of color and women, but let’s be clear no one is 100% authentic at work (See Dr. James’ whitepaper “Journey to the top: Developing African-American Executives”). However, the closer people can get to their true authentic self at work, the more genuine others will perceive them, and the less stress they will experience at work. Owning and embracing who and what you are in every environment empowers you and cuts down on the baggage. The outside world wants you to conform to their image of who or what you should be, whether that is as President of the USA, a senior organizational leader, or an NFL Quarterback. At the end of the day, you have to live with you and be happy with who and how you are, but there can be consequences for being authentic (see #10). At the end of the day, a waffling, inauthentic leader is an ineffective leader.

5. Mistakes happen; don’t sweat ‘em, learn from ‘em – As a starting point, no one is trying to make mistakes. We can all strive for perfection and may even get close, but the reality of the situation is that mistakes do occur. Accept that they can happen (especially when you are taking risks), and anticipate the most obvious places where failure can happen (plan for it). When unanticipated failures happen, extract whatever learnings you can from them and adapt what you are doing to account for these failures. Thinking of mistakes as iterative learning opportunities helps you and your teams to adopt a continuous learning attitude and pushes for constant improvement. Setting the bar consistently higher on performance gets you to a Super Bowl or whatever the equivalent of it is in your business such as #1 in market share!

6. Be careful who you rely on, do they have the right stuff? – Personally and professionally, we all must be selective about the company we keep and whom we trust/rely upon. In sport, it is your teammates. Cam has grown in his trust of his teammates and they have grown in their trust of him. This increased trust has been demonstrated by changes in Cam’s distribution of the football to his receivers over the course of the season. Trust goes down immensely when someone doesn’t deliver in their role. Typically, in football, it is followed by demotion and a “next man up” mentality. Business is less obvious (or brutally honest) about under-performance; however, those who can’t cut it are often cast aside. There are two parts to the equation which must be considered to make the right calls on talent. First, do they have the right stuff to help you win; that is, do they have the right skills and capabilities to function in the role and perform. Selection is critical here, so be clear about what you need in a role to win. Second, can they perform under pressure? Anyone can perform when there is no pressure, but who can deliver under the microscope of a big game or a looming deadline. These are the people who you can rely on and go to when a play is needed.

7. Enjoy what you are doing – Draw energy from your work, but don’t be drained by it. Find the big and small opportunities to relish what you are doing (in the moment). Your ability to have fun and enjoy what you are doing at work or on the playing field will be infectious to those around you! Others will draw on your energy and passion. Leaders who can capitalize on this passion will get the followership they need to get their teams rallied around them and focused on meeting and often exceeding their organizational/ team objectives.

8. (Look back) Recognize & acknowledge you didn’t get here by yourself – Sport gets the concept of “team” better than anywhere else. The focus is not on the individual; it is on the team. Successful business leaders understand that success comes from the team working together toward its goals. Many leaders do not acknowledge the contributions of others to their success. They will overly tout what they did and how they accomplished some task without giving others credit for their contribution. However, great leaders acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of others to team success. Newton has not only acknowledged the contributions of his teammates to his personal success and the team’s success, but he has also noted the role of his family, university, coaches, and trainers in helping him to succeed.

9. (Give back) Help others – There are many level of responsibility that business leaders and star players have which support the organization. Cam has demonstrated the best of what a leader can do by his actions on and off the field. Giving balls to little kids after touchdowns is priceless. Helping to create a phenomenon and getting your teammates to buy into it is a great example of leadership. In business, we talk about social responsibility and we measure it through all kinds of scorecards, but the true spirit of giving is not a scorecard – it is lives impacted. It isn’t just paying lip service – it is taking action for something you believe in, even when the spotlight isn’t shining on you.

10. Embrace (the controversy of) your choices – No one will be happy with every decision that you make. Whether it is about authenticity or a strategic business bet, make the best decision you can and move forward with haste. The goal is to win – not make everyone happy. Have values, own them, and stand up for what you believe in. People may not like it, but they will have to respect it and they will follow your lead as a result. Build your resilience to weather the storms coming your way. Hear it, be attuned to it, but don’t succumb to it or let it deter you from your path.