Super Bowl Leadership: Young vs. Not-So-Young

How companies—like the two opposing teams Sunday—succeed with different ranges of star power in charge.

One sideline features an experienced, top-tier talent with a range of skills and a knack for performing under pressure that is unparalleled in the business. The other sideline features a talented but inexperienced role player equally capable of a breakout or crash-and-burn performance. The former is, of course, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The latter is Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Their divergent paths to this Sunday’s Super Bowl offers lessons on alignment, stability, and talent management for leaders that extend well beyond the field.

“It all starts with the system and the owner, general manager and coach giving their players the best chance to be successful,” says Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global sector leader for sports with Korn Ferry. In that regard, Brady’s return to the big game is almost anticlimactic—Sunday will mark his eighth Super Bowl start, and he’s already won five rings, both the most for any quarterback ever. But putting aside that Brady is arguably the best quarterback the NFL has ever seen, he has only ever played for one coach, who in turn has only had to deal with one owner. That kind of alignment and stability is rare not only in sports, but also in the leadership ranks of organizations in all sectors of the economy.

Indeed, Foles’ path to the Super Bowl more accurately reflects the experiences of a vast majority of promising young talent. Foles is no doubt an above average quarterback—winning 14 of the 18 games he started for the Eagles in 2013 and 2014. But he has played for four teams in six years—this is his second stint with the Eagles—which means four different coaches and four different systems. In that regard, Foles’ career isn’t much different than that of the bright young project manager whose disrupted company is on its third owner and fifth pivot.

“He’s a young guy who has been in a lot of different systems,” says Hughes. “He hasn’t been part of developing them like Brady.” Still, as Hughes points out, the Eagles have developed an offensive strategy that makes Foles more productive.

From a talent management perspective, teams don’t work if people don’t play their part, and Eagles Coach Doug Pederson put Foles in the best possible role. It’s not as easy as it seems—to draw a comparison to the corporate world, a Korn Ferry survey of more than 1,000 talent acquisition professionals around the world found more than half of them saying its more difficult to find qualified candidates now than it was in the past. Further, job candidates are making decisions based more on culture than compensation. That’s pretty much how Foles landed at the Eagles—Pederson needed to sign a quality quarterback as insurance in case starter Carson Wentz went down, which he did, and Foles chose the Eagles in part because of its system and culture. 

As this Sunday’s game unfolds, remember that not everyone can be as blessed in talent and leadership skills as Brady. But the success of teams depends on everyone being put in and playing their roles.