Photo © Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
I moved to San Francisco in 1990 with no meaningful loyalties to any sports teams, and I quickly fell in love with the city, so it's no surprise that I became a 49ers and Giants fan. I don't write about sports often, although occasionally they provide useful examples and counter-examples that are relevant to my work with leaders and MBA students. So today I want to express my appreciation for Colin Kaepernick, #7 above, and Alex Smith, #11, the current and previous quarterbacks for the 49ers.
Smith was a long-suffering (albeit well-compensated) talent on the poorly coached, horrendously mismanaged and perennially terrible Niners teams of the second half of the last decade. He deserves some blame for those failures, of course, but in my opinion he was repeatedly let down by leaders who simply had no idea what they were doing. New leadership eventually turned the team around and seemed to rekindle some magic in Smith, who in 2012 was having his best season by far when an injury knocked him out of the lineup.
Kaepernick, a second-year player, took over and never looked back, keeping the starting job even after Smith had fully recovered. Some fans felt, as I did, that Smith was being unfairly denied this opportunity to finally lead a decent team, and we couldn't quite embrace Kaepernick, the new guy, the stranger. Through it all Smith was a model teammate, although I have to imagine it felt like a cruel twist of fate to lose his position just as the team was on the cusp of greatness. And I can't even fathom what Smith felt when the team he led for years fell just short and lost the Super Bowl with Kaepernick at the helm. Half-misery, half-schadenfreude, I guess.
But the off-season heals, and I'm happy that Smith was able to move on and find a new professional home in Kansas City, and as the 49ers traded scores with the Green Bay Packers (Boo!) in the season's first game this weekend, I found myself equally happy that Kaepernick was on our side. The Packers had been threatening before the game to shut down Kaepernick by intimidating and overwhelming him, and what finally marked the transition for me and made me think of Kaepernick as our guy was this quote after the game:
#49ers QB Colin Kaepernick: "If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one."— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) September 9, 2013
I love it.
I'm not suggesting that Smith and Kaepernick are role models--they're entertainers. (And as Charles Barkley once said, athletes and rock stars aren't role models.) But I find it interesting to think about their different approaches to leadership, at least in the narrow realm of NFL quarterbacking, and to wonder what we might learn from them and apply in the wider world: Smith, the stoic veteran who refused to complain and refused to quit, and Kaepernick, the joyful upstart who refuses to be intimidated, who refuses to be anyone but himself. These approaches aren't mutually exclusive, and I suspect Smith would have benefited from a little more defiance earlier in his career--and I suspect Kaepernick might benefit from a little stoicism some day in the future.
There's value in finding the balance between those two poles in ourselves, being able to regulate and self-manage and stoically persist through times of intense stress while also being able to tap into our defiance, our anger, our power and, when necessary, let someone know that we won't be intimidated.