Fire without brimstone: a new type of leader is ascendant in the NFL

Mahomes and Allen represent a new era of QB, with a different leadership approach.

by Paul West

It’s been increasingly apparent for a couple of years, but it’s clear now: a new wave has taken over the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. But it’s not a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss;’ instead, it’s a refreshing new style of leadership, which relies on positive energy in lieu of old school negative reinforcement. Unlike Tom Brady‘s choleric hollering, Peyton Manning’s bossy theatrics, and Aaron Rodgers‘ withering stares, signal callers like Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are rarely seen motivating their troops with negative energy. They might yell, scream, emote, or exhort; but it projects more ‘get on board’ than ‘follow or else.’ They don’t lack confidence, conviction, or competitive fire, but they accomplish the ‘building up’ without the ‘tearing down’ that so many find necessary accompaniment.

Though he surely wasn’t the first of his kind, Drew Brees was arguably the modern precursor to this new kind of leader. Brees brought fire without the brimstone, leading legendary pregame huddles that exuded a we got this power of belief that made even casual YouTube viewers want to run through a brick wall. Russell Wilson was another member of Brees’ era who led via positivity, though his ‘aw shucks’ vibe put him in a category unto himself (it also ruffled feathers in a way that other positivists’ didn’t, as evidenced by the–admittedly somewhat unfair–way many have turned on him during his struggles in Denver).

Drew Brees’ pregame speeches are legendary for bringing fire without the brimstone.

This new wave of leaders has debunked the myth that you need to be maniacal, flagrantly disrespectful, preposterously egotistical, or curmudgeonly to achieve great competitive heights. In the NBA, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Dirk Nowitzki, and Magic Johnson have provided such examples: not milquetoast dullards who lacked intensity, they were as driven and competitive as anyone else but managed to do it without making others miserable.

This new style of leadership is important to the world writ large, especially at a time when the world seems to be collectively deciding on the value of kindness and humanism as virtues. It shines through in moments such as the recent near-tragedy involving Damar Hamlin, as well: at a lengthy press conference regarding his fallen teammate, Allen displayed remarkable vulnerability, emotional intelligence, empathy, and openness, and it’s telling that this wasn’t seen as contrary to his established persona. Without naming names, there are a few elite quarterbacks whom it’s hard to imagine delivering anything but canned–even if sincere–platitudes in a similar situation. The Buffalo Bills are renowned for their genuine team camaraderie, and the sports world was lucky to have this be the team with which to share its collective fright.

It isn’t just quarterbacks, either: Saquon Barkley and JJ Watt are two of the greatest at their position, and they do it with a fire-sans-brimstone approach. And again, this leadership style isn’t new in any are of the world, sporting or otherwise; but it’s becoming less and less anomalous, and its validity and effectiveness are becoming more broadly accepted. Fading are the days when ‘player’s coach’ was a backhanded compliment, often meant to imply that players weren’t sufficiently disciplined or focused; fading are the days when a Bobby Knight-style approach are considered not just unacceptable but mind boggling; fading are the days when competitors who smiled too much, helped up fallen opponents, or failed to flap their arms and glare at teammates’ mistakes are widely decried as ‘soft’ and not built for success.

There are many reasons to be excited for this weekend’s round of NFL games, and for the current crop of what seems to be generational talent at key positions of importance. Not least of these reasons is the more forward-looking example being set by so many of those taking hold of the game’s future.

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