pj4_0209-580x386If retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning felt out of place in a room filled with insurance professionals—miles away from where he was last year on his way to a Super Bowl-winning season—no one would have guessed.

The star athlete who has led two different teams to Super Bowl victories related his experience as a team leader to that of insurance professionals at this year’s Target Markets Program Administrators Association Summit in Scottsdale.

Manning said the fundamentals of being a good leader are very similar, whether leading a sports team or a successful company.

“You all are here this morning to explore what it means to expect excellence and to learn to anticipate and deal with the wide range of outcomes that may result from having those high expectations,” the quarterback told the insurance program managers and underwriters.

“In many respects your profession isn’t that much different from professional football. You’re expected to master the complicated and underwrite very specific risks,” he said. “Quarterbacks are faced with similar challenges. They have to master complex game plans, hundreds of plays mixed with pivot formations that may result in up to 1,000 different combinations. Quarterbacks also have to deal with time, noise, weather—and also those 300-pound defensive linemen.”

Manning isn’t a complete stranger to the insurance industry—he is currently a Nationwide Insurance spokesperson—but his experience with the industry obviously pales in comparison to his nearly 30-year college and professional football career.

The packed room of insurance professionals listened intently as the six-foot-five future Hall of Famer recalled successes and setbacks of his sports career while emphasizing the importance of the team around him.

“No matter how great you may be as a leader, you are only as good as the logo and color of your jersey…Whether a quarterback or insurance expert, the team you surround yourself with and how you choose to lead them, I promise you, will be a huge part of your record when your season is done,” he said. “Your results are directly proportionate to the effort and skill you put into leading your team.”

In comparing the challenges of the business world to football, Manning said disruption and competition make the role of a leader even more important.

“What does leadership mean in a world that is constantly spinning on its axis and whipping up hurricanes and challenging [what] we have to offer?…When you are faced with ferocious competition and unanticipated failures, when your industry is disrupted by exploding technologies and new risks like cyber breaches and driverless cars, [are] you ready to dig deep enough to discover insights that can provoke valuable action?” he said.

“And if you are ready, are you willing to commit to something that will be uncomfortable—because leadership is really a tale of two opposites: of anxiety and breakthrough.”

He said effective leaders navigate those challenges and use the unknowns to their advantage.

“In this ever-changing and turbulent business environment we’re in, we need to constantly unearth and experiment with new ways to compete and ultimately to win,” he said. “And when you are competitive like I am and I know all of you are, it is part of your fiber and drives your thinking, feeds your desires, directs your action.”

For the insurance industry, Manning said he knows attracting young talent is another challenge, unlike professional sports. Over his career, however, he still had to adapt to dealing with new talent on his teams.

“I had to learn how to communicate in different ways to a different and certainly younger generation,” he said.

Humor Plays a Role

Manning wasn’t all serious. He said he grew up laughing thanks to his older brother Cooper Manning, who he said was the funny sibling and helped him be less serious. He told the audience, “It’s good to laugh; it’s good for your heart.”

He spoke about his experiences since becoming a Nationwide Insurance commercial star. Manning said when he goes places now people bring up his commercials instead of talking to him about football. He said the Nationwide jingle “Nationwide is on your side” especially gets in people’s heads and has been hard for him to escape.

“It’s gotten to the point now where people don’t come up and speak to me; they come up and jingle to me,” he said. “I was out to dinner and the waitress said, ‘What would you like to eat?'”

Manning attributes having a humorous attitude to helping him overcome hurdles throughout his long career.

Though he may be revered as a leader now, Manning said he didn’t start out that way. He recalled his first huddle as a freshman quarterback at the University of Tennessee and his attempt to motivate his teammates. The reaction by a senior of, “Hey freshman, shut the blank up and call the blanking play,” was a humbling experience for Manning.

“The truth is nobody starts out as a leader. It doesn’t matter if your title is quarterback, business manager or CEO, leadership isn’t handed to you. You have to earn it,” he said.

Manning’s legacy to most will be his 18-year professional football career that includes two Super Bowl wins, five “Most Valuable Player” awards, numerous winning seasons and countless records. But Manning said the hard times he faced during his career are what he thinks truly define him and what truly define any good leader.

“I’ve had plenty of disappointments, heartbreak, setbacks—[all were] catalysts, driving me to do something better,” he said. “Leaders have to assess the competitive landscape and try to chart the future and build a vision that will help you and your businesses compete.”

He recalled the most significant setbacks of his career—four neck surgeries and subsequent parting with the Indianapolis Colts in 2011, the team he signed with out of college and for which he played 14 years. In 2012, he landed at the Denver Broncos and began a new career at a time when most professional athletes would have walked away.

“2011—the year of my professional life I would like to erase except it was a necessary starting point for us to win Super Bowl 50,” he said. “As a leader, you have to prepare for a wide range of inevitabilities and put in an extraordinary amount of effort in order to manage them effectively.”

That effort paid off in 2015 when the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 after a tumultuous season where Manning missed four games. He said even when he wasn’t on the field with his teammates because of his injury, it was important that they knew he was still their leader.

“Attitude was the key, because as leaders you are either all in or all out. I never said even in private that I wouldn’t play again or that I was out for the season,” he said. “I took it one week at a time and took on small goals to help me reach my bigger ones.”

Manning said in football, business or life, strong leaders must believe there is something more out there to reach for, and if they put aside their fears and “believe in the unimaginable,” they can stoke “belief in others that truly makes you and your teams unstoppable.”

“As leaders we need to learn to not be led by the inevitable impediments that will appear in our paths or those setbacks that will knock us on our butts. Instead, I encourage you to be led by your dreams and work to cultivate that attitude with the people that work with you and for you,” he said.