March 10, 2020 7:30:00 AM EDT  |  Leadership and Leadership Development

How to Lead Like a Heisman Trophy Winner: Risk, Persistence, Humility

True confession up front—I am an Louisiana State University alum and I bleed purple and gold for Tiger football. By any standards, my Bayou Bengals had a magical season this year led by an unlikely Ohio transplant—Joe Burrow.

Being a quarterback at a major Division I program means one is already a freakishly gifted athlete. Burrow spent three seasons as a backup to some very talented starters at Ohio State. With two years of NCAA eligibility left, the Athens, OH native rolled the dice and transferred to, of all places, Louisiana.

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Be Willing to Take Calculated Risks


Like any good leader, the QB took a calculated risk. Likewise, the LSU head coach, gravelly-voiced Ed Ogeron, took a risk by handing this Buckeye transfer the keys to the program.

Burrow could have taken the easier path and backed up Dwayne Haskins at OSU. Instead, he followed a different path from Big 10 crazed Columbus, Ohio to Southeastern Conference crazed Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He chased new challenges and opportunities where he could make a bigger impact, even though it wasn't the path of least resistance and success was not guaranteed. 

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Persist Through Set-Backs

Joe Burrow demonstrated tremendous persistence. His first season at LSU was not bad, the team finished a respectable 10 and 3. But the Tigers were 5 and 3 in their conference, including a humiliating 29-0 loss at home to Alabama.

In fact, following that loss to the Crimson Tide, the Tigers coaching staff knew they had to change things up. This eventually led to the addition of Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints. Brady joined the Tiger coaching staff and helped re-engineer LSU's offense, relying heavily on the arm of 23-year-old Burrow.

Related: Great Leaders Leverage Teamwork in the Face of Tough Times

The results were a smashing success that may go down as one of the most storied seasons in college football. Burrow and the Tigers were poised and confident in his second year and they rolled through opponents in a very demanding schedule. When all was said and done, LSU hoisted the National Championship trophy.

The Buckeye-turned-Bayou Bengal, who won the hearts of the entire state when warmed up wearing a jersey showing his name spelled Cajun style: Burreaux, put up some eye-watering stats, set all kinds records and brought the first Heisman Trophy to LSU in 60 years.

Stay Humble

Burrow's Heisman Trophy acceptance speech was a model of humility. I challenge anyone to watch this and not get a little choked up.

He thanked his parents, of course, but also his OSU coaches and teammates, as well as those at LSU. He acknowledged all those who had supported him in his college football journey, from Buckeye fans to Tigers fans in his adopted state.

Finally, in a nod to his roots, he accepted the trophy on behalf of those less fortunate kids in SE Ohio that didn't always have enough to eat. As a result of using his platform to raise the issue of hunger, the local food bank in SE Ohio received an unprecedented $360,000 in donations!

What a way for this athlete-turned-leader to finish his college career. All the best to Burrow in his professional career, may his risk taking pay off, his persistence remain and here's hoping he always stays humble.

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About the Author

Steve Genn, PMP, BCC

Steve Genn, PMP, BCC

Steve leads client delivery and portfolio growth at the Department of Defense (DoD) for Markon. He is accountable for the team’s professional growth and development, client satisfaction, and the portfolio’s success. He has served clients across the DoD, Intelligence Community, federal civilian, and commercial healthcare markets. With a passion for developing the next generation of leaders, Steve co-developed and facilitates Markon’s Leadership Development Program. Prior to Markon, Steve supported clients for PwC, West Hudson/Cardinal Health, and several highly regarded management consulting firms. He received his MBA from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a BA from Louisiana State University, where he was commissioned through Air Force ROTC. Steve's military career includes service as an active duty Air Force Air Battle Manager, during which he flew missions in Desert Storm. He retired as a Colonel from the Air Force Reserves. Steve currently holds the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential and is a Board Certified Executive Coach (BCC), as well as a certified Myers-Briggs practitioner.