When I was young, I would ride my bike across town to the Baltimore Colts training camp. Watching Johnny Unitas (the best quarterback of his generation) work was inspiring and taught me important lessons in leadership. Most memorable was the work I saw with Raymond Berry, tossing him endless passes as the light was fading. Berry would plead to be done, noting the fading light made catching the intentionally off target passes nearly impossible to catch. Nonetheless Unitas continued on as he was preparing for the worst at game time, when stress would be high and success hinged on the preparation. Johnny Unitas was revered by his teammates for his hard work, his sacrifice and that he knew how to get the best from each of them. The benefit for me was the joy of seeing them win more often than not.
Peyton Manning (arguably the best quarterback of this generation) spoke during the Opening Ceremonies of the 83rd AANS Annual Scientific Meeting and put into words the concepts that Johnny Unitas taught me decades earlier about leadership, teamwork, and preparation. It confirmed my belief that my youthful involvement in, and dedication to, football had laid an important foundation for my career in neurosurgery. Peyton kept the audience transfixed first with humor (noting the disappointment he knew his mother suffered when he hosted Saturday Night Live) and then with cogent concepts.
“Decision making is the currency of every profession,” he stated, noting, however, that in neurosurgery the ramifications are different than in his profession. He also told the audience, “Small decisions are the foundations of the next ones; anyone can become the game changer.” Poignantly, he noted that both fans and patients want the unattainable, a perfect performance every time with the past too easily forgotten by the immediate actions and outcomes.
Then he asked:
- What are your game changers?
- What does it take to make a difference?
- Can you thrive on discomfort and not rehash the old?
- Will you respond to the constant flux that requires constant adjustment?
His insights into how to approach these challenges included:
- Intense preparation is essential;
- Creativity drives solutions;
- Everyone needs an honest coach (mentor) who will provide a different perspective;
- Be determined to keep raising the bar; and
- Instill trust in others to bring out the best.
Peyton concluded by again asking of us, “How do we learn to move the chains down the field?” Pulling all his concepts together he suggested that in football as well as neurosurgery, success comes to the master observers, an enormous source of power and creativity. This should be augmented by setting personal goals that contribute to organizational success because moving forward together is the only way to progress. Clearly, Peyton has the assurance and swagger of a winner, but always appreciates the need for team. He left the stage to a standing ovation after just one last inspirational concept: Success requires that we can rapidly get back to zero after experiencing a problem or set back.
On the most personal level, I again thank football for bringing me neurosurgical inspiration in the unlikely guise of Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning.