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Lessons in Leadership From Peyton Manning, Biographer Isaacson

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Peyton ManningAt advisor-centric conferences, you can almost hear the collective moan when a speaker who is an expert from another industry tries to relate their area of expertise into what they think an advisor’s business is like. That was far from the case on Friday morning as noted biographer Walter Isaacson and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (left) addressed a healthily sized remnant of the 1,400 attendees at Pershing’s annual Insite conference in south Florida.

Longtime journalist and former Time magazine editor Isaacson has written biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and, most recently, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. He argued in his June 7 morning keynote speech that great leaders aren’t necessarily the smartest people in the room but that they tend to be innovative problem solvers. Lamenting the fact that Americans fail to “celebrate our entrepreneurs,” Isaacson said great leaders tend to question common wisdom and look beyond what others see.

Steve Jobs’ particular genius, he argued, was that he could look at any situation and then “simplify the obvious.” As an example, he cited the development of Apple’s first iPod, which  in addition to its now-iconic click wheel also included, originally, an on-off switch. As Isaacson relates the story, Jobs asked Apple developers why the device needed such a switch, and the engineers thus changed the design so the iPod could power down and power up on demand from the user, rather than use an on-off switch. Jobs, he said, displayed “passion mixed with arrogance” throughout his whole life.

Benjamin Franklin was the “solution finder among the Founders,” Isaacson said, citing his ability to successfully edit Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence and to forge a compromise at the Constitutional Convention under which the number of Representatives in Congress was based on relative population, while the Senate comprised two members from each state. While Franklin, like Jobs, was far from humble, he nevertheless learned that “the pretense of humility is as valuable as the actuality,” since it led him to carefully listen to those who didn’t agree with him, which Isaacson called the “essence of democracy.”

Albert Einstein questioned the common wisdom among physicists in the form of Newton’s dictum on time, arguing that time is experienced by everyone in the same way, while Einstein eventually developed his theory of relativity which essentially argued (and has proven to be true) that time will be experienced differently by different people who are in different “space.” But being an innovator requires preparation and study, Isaacson argued: “You have to know what’s in the box,” Isaacson said to laughter from the audience, “before you can think outside the box.”

The journalist/biographer’s argument on preparation was picked up by fellow New Orleanian Peyton Manning (he and Isaacson attended the same high school—Isidore Newman School—in the Crescent City) as the four-time NFL MVP discussed his own take on how leaders should make decisions.

Introduced by the urbane Frank LaSalla of Pershing (a New York Jets fan), Manning was affable and at ease delivering his prepared remarks, and showed a penchant for the offhand comic remark that should perhaps not be surprising, recalling his memorable stint as a host on Saturday Night Live.

On decision making, he said that “you can be a warrior or a worrier,” and that a leader should make decisions “without flip flopping or vacillation.” Manning argued that while a “team plays better when a leader doesn’t hesitate” in his decision-making, “to get to that level requires an enormous amount of preparation,” which is why he said, he feels comfortable making audible calls at the line of scrimmage.

He told the Insite audience that at any given moment, “there is no one correct decision,” and that you must always make decisions knowing it may not be the right one. However, he said, you “can’t build decisions based on hope.” Finally, referencing his four neck surgeries, the last of which forced him out of the NFL for a year, he said that “resilience is the reward for preparation.”

Check out more coverage from Pershing Insite 2013.