What Peyton Manning Taught Me about Leadership

Although I’ve never been a big Denver Broncos or Indianapolis Colts fan, I’ve always admired Peyton Manning. His tremendous ability, legendary work ethic, competitive fire, and impressive family legacy (I am old enough to remember watching Peyton’s father, Archie Manning, during his heroic career with the New Orleans Saints in the early 70’s) make him hard not to like.

Two and half years ago, an excellent article in Sports Illustrated magazine honored him as the 2013 Sportsman of the Year, which, after reading, sealed the deal for me as one of my all-time favorite sports figures.

According to the SI story, since 1997, Manning’s senior year at the University of Tennessee, countless numbers of families throughout the Volunteer state have named their sons after him.

And as the article unfolds, it’s easy to see why. Although he grew up in a family that was practically worshiped as royalty, a byproduct of Archie’s college career as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in SEC history, his parents modeled simplicity, personal responsibility, and the value of hard work. And despite Peyton’s amazing talent and prodigious college and professional career, the article highlights how Manning treated everyone, from the head coach to the equipment managers, with the same respect and genuine concern.

The Power of a Personal Note

via stocksnap.io

What I learned the most from this in-depth look at Manning’s life and career, however, was one simple habit he employed that has helped me grow as a leader. As the article explains:

“A son of the genteel South, Manning learned early on the power of the handwritten note… He still remembers the college coaches who wrote him during his recruitment as opposed to the ones who resorted to thoughtless form letters. He would lick his thumb and rub it against the signatures to determine whether they were real. And when Manning left for college, Archie would write him before every fall semester.”

Peyton’s penchant for handwritten notes stuck with him into adulthood, when he entered a promising professional career that would elevate him to national stardom. As anyone who practices penmanship can attest, writing notes takes time and patience. No one would blame him for giving up this bygone practice in exchange for texting or tweeting. But the personal discipline and attention to detail that defined him as a player bled through to how he related to people:

“Throughout his career, Manning has written to coaches and players who retire, as well as widows of coaches and players who pass away. He writes subjects of documentaries he has seen and victims of tragedies he’s heard about. He writes his children every six months, even though they are years away from deciphering his cursive. (His wife) Ashley buys his stationery, cream-colored cards with PEYTON W. MANNING in block letters at the top. It’s hard to find any coach, teammate or staffer who hasn’t received a note from Manning. ‘I got one when my dad passed,’ says (former teammate) Brandon Stokely, ‘and another when Peyton stayed at my house.’ ‘I got one when I retired,’ says former Colts video director Marty Heckshcher. ‘It almost brought me to tears.’ ‘I got one when the Colts let me go,’ says Jon Torine, the former strength coach. ‘It meant more than any paycheck.’

In addition to writing teammates and coaches, Manning asked staffers to go through the hundreds of pieces of mail he received each week as a player, selecting the heart-felt letters and personally responding to many of them:

“To Jack Benson, an eight-year-old in California with cancer: ‘I just wanted you to know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. You have a lot of people pulling for you. Keep fighting, stay positive, and say your prayers.’ To Chris Harris, widow of a youth pastor in Arkansas who was killed in a car accident, ‘I am sorry for your loss. Please know that I am praying for you. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ (Matthew 5:4) I learned that Pastor Harris was an avid Colts fan and had an autographed picture of me in his office. I read an article about Pastor Harris, and I can tell you he was very special. I am proud that he was a fan of mine. May God’s peace be with you.’

Think of the time it took him to write such thoughtful replies. How many high level celebrities can you name who would commit to such deep and personalized correspondence with their fans?

Inspired by the article, the next day I visited my local print shop and ordered my own monogrammed stationery. And since I’ve trained, spoken and posted on the power of consistent habits verses going for big performance leaps, I put my training to work, committing to writing one personal note every work day. (I mailed them on on my way home.) While I mostly send them to employees on their birthdays or work anniversaries, I also send them to friends, colleagues, community volunteers, and anyone I come across who I think would benefit from an encouraging note. I’ve been doing this for the past several years and although I can’t say that I never miss a day (I do, especially when I get busy or travel), I can report that committing to this simple discipline has made a difference in me as a leader. I have had employees stop by my office to share their surprise and gratitude for my note. Several have mentioned that they shared it with their entire family–and others tell me they have it posted on their refrigerator door for months… even years.

The experience tells me this: In an age of digital superficiality, people everywhere are starved for genuine connection. Taking the time to write a thoughtful note can go a long way in making an impact.

Just ask Peyton Manning.

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    4 Responses to What Peyton Manning Taught Me about Leadership

    1. Michelle Smith-Ronk August 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

      As a recipient of a few of these notes over the years, I can say how much I appreciate them. To know that you took the time out of your day to write me a card, whether it be congratulating me on the birth of my son, or just letting me know how I’m doing, made me feel special. Thank you for taking the time.

    2. Polly Barnes August 11, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

      I have little 4 year old triplet friends and ther Mom always writes thank you notes. They presented me with presents . I said I have to write them thank you notes…how awesome that I read your post today. Now I will find those notes!

    3. Sally August 11, 2016 at 9:02 pm #

      I heard today that your father had passed after battling Alzheimer’s disease. I also read that he sacrificed his dream or desire to be a lawyer and instead took over the “business”. He is leaving a legacy for us all to learn from. May you be blessed knowing many are thinking of your family in this time of sorrow, and praying a peace that passes all understanding for the entire Marsh family

      • Bill Marsh Jr October 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

        Sally,

        I’m sorry to respond so late–somehow, your comment ended up in my spam filter!
        Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments on my father’s legacy. We definitely felt your prayers as our entire family came together in amazing ways to honor his memory. Blessings,
        Bill

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