The question came at Ed Helton like a Peyton Manning pass to a wide-open receiver 15 yards down field.
“I had one business leader ask me, ‘What can a football player tell us about leadership?’” said Helton, Columbus State University assistant vice president for Leadership Development.
Monday night, Manning will answer that question and others as the keynote speaker for the 11th annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. The forum has brought world-class speakers like former President George W. Bush, former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, authors Thomas Freedman and Malcolm Gladwell, and political leaders like Zell Miller and James Carville and Mary Matalin.
You get the picture.
But back to the question: What can a guy who spent 18 years in the NFL before retiring last season after leading the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl teach a group of 1,200 executives about leadership?
“I have wrestled with that since I have had that question,” Helton said Wednesday morning in his CSU office. “Nothing is more business bottom line than the NFL. You don’t play well, you don’t function well, you don’t stay.”
And few men have done it better than Manning. The Indianapolis Colts made him the first pick of the 1998 draft — and he lived up to the hype. He was a five-time league Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl XLI MVP. He is also a commercial pitchman for DirecTV and Papa John’s pizza, which makes him a leader on and off the field.
“Why would they follow Peyton?” Helton asks. “... Whether it is military, football or business, to function as a team there are some fundamental things that have to happen — and those at the highest level like Manning have to do that through leadership.”
There is another interesting aspect to Manning’s Blanchard Forum appearance and it has taken Helton by surprise. Given the nature of the forum’s past speakers, Helton is accustomed to special requests, but not the volume he has received this year.
“It’s been unique in that we have more requests to meet him personally than anybody we have ever had,” Helton said. “... We have had requests from state senators, state representatives, pastors, football coaches, you name it — ‘Can I come by and meet him and shake his hand?’”
Because of Manning’s contract and schedule, Helton has been in the business of saying no a lot in recent weeks.
Helton, a lifelong Alabama Crimson Tide fan, thinks he knows why Manning has generated such interest.
“His popularity; maybe football here in the South,” Helton said. “.... We are talking about teams this year, so someone at that level, Hall of Fame quarterback knows a lot about teams, but that still doesn’t answer the question why so many want to meet him.”
That said, I suspect Manning does have a thing or two to tell us about leadership.