Creative Leadership

What I Learned about Leadership from Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns

I’ve never been a Cleveland Browns football fan, although I’ve gotten a kick over the years watching the agony of fans like my friend Hugh Hewitt. Early in my career my wife Kathleen and I spent about 12 years in Tulsa, and during that time I completed my Master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, so I’ve been a Sooner football fan for a long time. Over the last few years it was particularly fascinating watching quarterback Baker Mayfield lead the Sooners, and now, as the #1 draft pick, he’s playing for Cleveland. So last night’s game against the New York Jets caught my attention.

If you didn’t see it, the game was a come from behind victory for the Browns – the first victory in nearly 2 seasons. Mayfield was the backup, but when starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor was injured near the end of the first quarter, Baker got his chance – and boy did he run with it. As I watched the game unfold, here’s some principles I noticed that could apply to leaders everywhere:

  1. Always be ready to step up. For whatever odd reason, Mayfield was never given the opportunity to compete for the starting job during summer practice. It was just assumed Taylor would be the guy. But that didn’t stop Mayfield from preparing for his moment. During the pre-season I noticed numerous reports of how late he would stay after practice, learning the new system, developing his skill, and getting ready for the year. No matter where you may be in the food chain at your organization, you never know when you may get the call, so be ready – as the Bible says “In season and out of season.”
  2. Don’t play it safe. Early in the game, Taylor was throwing short, safe routes. In fact, the announcer had mentioned in the pre-game show that as a rule, Taylor tended to go for the safe play. But Mayfield immediately started throwing long. It completely changed the course of the game, energized the fans, and started turning things around.
  3. Nothing takes the place of skill. I’m sure Tyrod Taylor is a good leader and a fine football player. But Baker Mayfield has a remarkable skill at putting the football into difficult places. His uncanny throwing ability – both for accuracy and for distance – makes him incredibly valuable.
  4. Stay cool under pressure. During the game, rookie Mayfield had the least experience of almost anyone on the field, and yet he seemed the most calm. Experience doesn’t always mean maturity. No matter how crazy a play went or what assignments were broken, Mayfield kept his cool. Strong leaders know how to keep calm under fire, which sends a powerful message to everyone else on the team.
  5. A great leader needs presence. The moment Baker Mayfield stepped on the field, the crowd lit up, and the team rose to a new level. I saw it for years at Oklahoma, and it’s happening now at Cleveland. “Presence” is the ability to energize your team just by being there.  Browns wide receiver Antonio Callaway said, “That juice. That fire. He is always fired up. He gave us a spark.” I’ve seen it in other leaders during a crisis, where everyone else was in a panic – but as soon as the leader walked in the room, there was a collective calm. Everyone relaxed because of their confidence in the leader. Mayfield has that gift, and knows how to use it to motivate and inspire his team. It’s a rare and powerful gift and one that all leaders should cultivate.
  6. Finally, strong leaders know how to have fun. Just watch the replay after a touchdown. Mayfield was cheering, running around, dancing with his teammates. Knowing when to have fun is a powerful tool for building camaraderie and working together.

Baker Mayfield isn’t perfect, and he’s had his share of embarrassing moments during his college career. Plus, it’s impossible this early to tell if he will have a long pro career or if Cleveland will continue to play at this level. But watching him last night made me realize that what he did on the field against the Jets were things that we as leaders need to emulate with our own teams.

Frank Schwab, writing for Yahoo Sports said about the rookie performance: “ If you took a poll of Browns fans right now, they might vote Mayfield as the greatest quarterback they’ve had since the team re-entered the NFL in 1999.” True or not, that’s a powerful statement.

Years from now, how will your team describe you?

Photo: UK Business Insider

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  1. “The Bigger the game? The Calmer I am.” – Wayne Gretzky

    That was a really fun game to watch last night. Good for Cleveland, the team & Mayfield.

  2. I’m a Steeler fan. Hmmmm. Actually I don’t follow football. I was just born near Pittsburgh and just say that. My in-laws were big Browns fans though. But the best part of this was your application.

  3. “The Bigger the game? The Calmer I am.” – Wayne Gretzky

    That was a really fun game to watch last night. Good for Cleveland, the team & Mayfield.

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