There are a lot of numbers that define the matchup between the quarterbacks in Sunday’s Super Bowl — touchdowns, yards and passes, to name a few. But perhaps no difference is more revealing than this figure: Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is 43, while Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs is 25.
Their teams (and their fans) look to them for leadership. Yet the leadership strengths Brady has are entirely different from the ones brought by Mahomes.
It’s the largest age gap between opposing quarterbacks in Super Bowl history. Mahomes is a millennial — and just barely, as he’s only about a year shy of Gen Z — in his fourth year with the NFL. He’s going toe-to-toe against Brady, a Gen Xer with six Super Bowl wins to his name. This confrontation is being seen as a classic battle between young and old, but comparing Mahomes and Brady this way fails to grasp a fundamental truth: Every generation, and age, brings with it a unique perspective and strength. This is why we can be equally in awe of a 43-year-old veteran and a quarterback trying to win his second Super Bowl by age 25.
Case in point: Both Mahomes and Brady are phenoms. Their teams (and their fans) look to them for leadership. Yet the leadership strengths Brady has are entirely different from the ones Mahomes brings. So which type of leadership is best? And more to the point, which is more likely to result in victory on Sunday?
There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. We expect — and often need — different things from our leaders depending on the challenges we face. And those differing qualities mean we can’t simply look at the raw athletic ability of a youthful quarterback and know how that will stack up against the wisdom of a middle-aged QB as they battle it out on the biggest stage in the NFL. (And that’s before getting to external factors such as the relative strength of their offensive lines.)
We traditionally look to more mature leaders when we need stability, according to research in Leadership Quarterly. They have learned valuable lessons that they can share with their teams to steady the boat during a challenge or crisis, and the networks they have built can provide additional support, particularly for those with less experience.
Brady, as the oldest quarterback in the NFL, is a textbook example. When he was preparing to leave New England for Tampa Bay, NBC Sports Boston wrote, “He will go down as one of the greatest players in NFL history. He'll also go down as one of the most consistent.”
There’s also simply the raw accumulation of knowledge and muscle memory. “When you open up Tom Brady’s brain — 20 years of football comes pouring out,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger once said. “He can call any play from any era to fix an issue or make a first down or win a game. You can’t expect [younger players] to understand his 20 years of experience.”
Indeed, that particular kind of wisdom can only be demanded from a seasoned pro like Brady. His years on the field have honed his ability to think strategically and allowed him to form strong relationships. He’s even on good terms with NFL refs (a rapport termed the “stuff of legend”).
His time on the field has also given him a seasoned mental toughness. Brady states in his book, “When you’re in a Super Bowl game and your team is three touchdowns down and the clock is running, mental toughness is what makes the difference at the end.” He would know: This will be his 10th Super Bowl, more than any other player.
While he’s taken home Super Bowl MVP four times, experience has also taught him the importance of investing in his team. Older leaders who have already established a strong reputation for themselves are often more willing to empower younger members. Brady is known for this kind of approach, which I’ve termed “Gentelligence,” or the ability to view generational diversity in an organization as an opportunity for growth and success rather than a threat.
Mahomes, on the other hand, is headed back to the Super Bowl at age 25 with one win as QB already under his belt. So how is it that, 18 years younger than Brady with nowhere near his level of experience, Mahomes is an extraordinary leader in his own right? When we look at it through the lens of Gentelligence, we realize his youth allows him to bring a completely different kind of value and strength to the field.
If we want to make a splash or mix things up, we seek out someone younger to lead the way. Research shows younger people are expected to have more energy and are more willing to take risks, meaning followers have historically looked to them if the challenge was about exploration or ways to invent something new.
Indeed, inventing something new seems to be a Mahomes hallmark. He’s beendescribed by other players as fearless, creative and crafty. After the Chiefs’ matchup with the New Orleans Saints in December, Insider reported, “Patrick Mahomes continues to find new ways to beat opposing defenses. As the most creative passer in the NFL, we've seen Mahomes make every sort of throw, from a left-handed shovel to a bit of no-look flair to a toe-dragging touchdown in a must-win game.”
Mahomes continues to earn his innovator reputation every time he takes the field. Under his leadership, we’ve seen the Smoked Sausage, Black Pearl and Ferrari Right — all wild and unexpected plays that represent a spirit of fun as well as experimentation. “I've never seen anything like it,” Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins has said. “We got one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so whatever he says, we're going to kind of follow it. He's so creative to where everybody is like, ‘Let’s give it a try.'”
Because younger leaders are often expected to shake things up, they have more of an opportunity to champion needed change within their organizations. But to ensure those new ways of doing things get traction, it’s important they partner with older team members to get buy-in. The key to the success of younger leaders is balancing that innovation with humility — since they can get pushback if they don’t appreciate the way things have traditionally been done.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Brady and Mahomes will be pulling from different playbooks, but effective leadership doesn’t belong to just one generation or age.
Mahomes seems to have mastered that balance. His teammates say he is known for his humility even as he has achieved celebrity status. According to Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, “I don’t think he understands who he is and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he’s really grounded and really humble in who he is as a person.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, Brady and Mahomes will be pulling from different playbooks, but effective leadership doesn’t belong to just one generation or age. Leadership is about mobilizing your team to do extraordinary things, and that kind of impact comes from leaning into your unique strengths, whether that be decades of experience or a youthful willingness to make unexpected moves.