The Gravitational Pull of Leadership

There are few stories less likely in all of sports than that of the 1999 St. Louis Rams. Having relocated from Los Angeles four years earlier, the Rams had a .343 winning percentage without a single winning season since their arrival in St. Louis. In the third game of the 1999 preseason, new quarterback Trent Green, signed as a free agent for nearly $20 million, suffered a season-ending knee injury. This led to the insertion of a one-time arena football player – who bagged groceries on the side – named Kurt Warner.

At the time of Green’s injury head coach Dick Vermeil said, “We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.” What happened next was the stuff found in fairy tales. A team that had won 22 games in four years would win 13 games during the regular season and the Super Bowl. Warner captured both the NFL regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards.

What Vermeil didn’t realize when he suggested players would rally around Kurt was that, in fact, that Warner possessed a rare kind of leadership: the kind where people gravitated toward him. The guy who went to the University of Northern Iowa and played in Europe took a doormat franchise to a Super Bowl title and later a second championship game. Warner would end his career by taking another also-ran franchise, the Arizona Cardinals, to their only Super Bowl appearance.

Warner was a tremendous quarterback, a field CEO if you will, but beyond the ability to execute was his ability to inspire people to want to be around him. Much is written on the characteristics that make a good leader, but at heart lies the one element that cannot be taught: the desire to associate with that individual. Go to any playground and find a group of kids; invariably, there’s one who will grab the ball, split up teams and start the game. And everyone else just falls in line. It’s just an innate gift.

In the digital world there are those companies built on brilliant products that cannot be successful and those run by brilliant leaders who inspire success. I reflect back to a conversation I had in the middle of the last decade with Jeff Weiner, now the CEO of LinkedIn, then a Yahoo Executive VP. I was in California for a speaking engagement and was chatting with my contacts at Yahoo about the state of affairs. This was during the period when Yahoo was struggling in its arms race against Google and before Microsoft made its acquisition bid. I frequently commented on the inability of the company to clearly articulate what it stood for in the market against the soaring appeal of Google. It was then that someone said, “You should meet Jeff.”

I think we met in a bar, it was loud and he described the vision, as he saw it, for the future of Yahoo. Afterward, my contact asked my opinion and I simply said, “If that guy could share that vision with everyone, you’d change the entire game.” Unfortunately for Yahoo, that would never happen. Jeff eventually left for LinkedIn where he may be the most underrated leader in the Valley.

Which brings us to the leaders of today. When you think of the companies shaping the future of media and technology, one underlying question stands out – are you betting on visionary leadership or an opportunistic product? In some cases you can get both, but in most cases the moment or the individual is what will deliver success. Next month, I’ll tackle a few companies that seem best suited for success based on the leaders at the helm. Until then, who do you see as the next generation of Jobs and Bezos?

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