CINCINNATI — Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow carries an almost impeccable identity.
An identity so impeccable that he’s earned the nickname Joe Cool just for his wardrobe. After all, when he can back it up with numbers and performances that have made him the unquestioned face on the Bengals’ franchise, Burrow’s opponents deservingly call him Joe Shiesty.
He’s so good that his opponents might find his success unfair but, for Burrow, it’s just business as usual.
Burrow’s confidence, success and swagger has helped bring the Bengals out of the ashes of playoff futility into the spotlight as Super Bowl contenders. So, what’s Burrow’s secret? How does he sum up his style?
As confident as Burrow is in himself, he can’t even give you a complete answer to that question.
“I’ve had that question asked to me before and I never really know how to answer that,” Burrow said last season ahead of the conference championship. “I just try to be myself because guys can tell if you’re trying to fake it and who you are. So, I think the best way to be a leader is to be yourself and go from there.”
Burrow doesn’t realize this, but there are multiple answers to that question. His identity stems from his ability to command a transformational leadership style, meaning he works with different groups and teams with the aim of creating a vision for change.
Creating that championship vision also requires drawing on a set of skills and concepts like emotional stability and interpersonal attractiveness.
The Bengals’ championship vision all starts with Burrow just simply being himself, but there’s much more to it than that.
Analyzing Burrow’s transformational leadership style
Transformational leadership can be broken down into four characteristics, also known as the four I’s:
Intellectual Stimulation;Inspirational Motivation;Individualized Consideration;and Idealized Influence.According to Laurens Steed, Ph.D, a management professor with a specialty in leadership at the University of Cincinnati’s Linder College of Business, Burrow falls under the category of a transformational leader because he’s able to back up what he says to the media and his teammates with specific examples.
“I think some of it comes back to what he was saying to you, and that he’s very much himself,” Steed told cleveland.com “You know, he’s very authentic.”
1. Intellectual stimulation: Flipping the switch
Once Burrow sets the Bengals’ vision of winning a Super Bowl, that’s what opens the door to intellectual stimulation. It allows Burrow’s vision to transform other veterans into leaders who can mobilize their fellow teammates with the same mindset.
A prime example of that is another big-name personality in the Bengals locker room. His close friend and teammate, defensive end Sam Hubbard.
Hubbard and Burrow were teammates during all three of Burrow’s seasons at Ohio State before he transferred to LSU. They would be reunited in Cincinnati two years later and the reunion couldn’t have come at a better time. Entering his sixth season with the Bengals, Hubbard has earned a reputation as being the Joe Burrow of the defense.
Earning such a title is an example of Burrow’s intellectual stimulation rubbing off on Hubbard.
2. Inspirational motivation: Getting followers on board
Burrow’s inspirational motivation comes from the way he dictates and lays out the team vision. Last season, following the Bengals’ regular-season finale victory over Baltimore, which clinched back-to-back AFC North titles for Cincinnati, Burrow said that ” his Super Bowl window is his entire career.”
“He’s setting a vision for the big game (Super Bowl) and for these long-term goals and making the team believe that they can achieve it and that they will achieve it,” Steed said.
Intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation can both go hand in hand. Inspirational motivation plainly sets the vision of winning a Super Bowl and the stimulation side allows for the vision to come to fruition, almost like cause and effect. You can’t have one without the other.
3. Individualized consideration: One-on-one connections
Individualized consideration represents how Burrow is able to connect with his teammates.
Any NFL locker room is diverse in terms of age, ethnic, racial and geographic background, so Burrow uses individualized consideration to ensure that he’s effectively able communicate and stimulate to each player.
Zachary Russell, Ph.D, an associate professor and chair of Xavier University’s Management and Entrepreneurship Department in the Williams College of Business, said one shining moment sticks out to him when it comes to Burrow’s individualized consideration.
Russell referenced the time when Burrow consoled former Bengals safety Jessie Bates III during Bates’ contract dispute last summer. Burrow and Bates took an offseason trip together to Las Vegas last July after Bates didn’t report to offseason workouts. That trip could’ve impacted Bates’ decision to ultimately end his holdout a month later by signing a franchise tender.
By publicly vouching for Bates, Burrow showed his teammates that he has their back through thick and thin. Convincing Bates to play in 2022 played a key role in helping lead the Bengals back to the AFC title game, as Bates had a career year with four interceptions that made a significant impact.
“That individualized connection and care for your teammates really helps to build the overall support,” Russell told cleveland.com. “I think that really does fulfill kind of what he is.”
4. Idealized influence: Charisma
Idealized influence from Burrow comes in the form of serving as a role model to his fellow teammates and being someone they want to follow.
An example of this is the “Burrowhead” comment that Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton made back in January. As the Bengals were wrapping up their divisional road playoff win over the Buffalo Bills, Hilton, who was mic’d up, told people listening that “we’ll see y’all at Burrowhead.” By associating Arrowhead Stadium with Burrow’s success, that’s evidence Burrow’s teammates look up to him.
The fact that Hilton chose to center the comment on Burrow, rather than something centered around the Bengals as a whole, indicates that even his own teammates trace their initial success back to Burrow. It doesn’t mean that all their success is attributed to Burrow, but Hilton’s comment indicated they can win anywhere, including a hostile road environment like Kansas City, with Burrow at the helm.
If the new Chiefs vs. Bengals rivalry isn’t enough fodder to illustrate that point, Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd drove it home after the Bengals’ Week 11 road win over the Steelers. When asked how the Bengals have been able to beat the Steelers four times in their last six meetings, Boyd’s short response spoke for itself.
“We’ve got Joe Burrow,” Boyd said.
The emotional stability of Joe Cool
Imagine all of the components of Burrow’s transformational leadership glued together into one body. Emotional stability, Steed said, is the substance that keeps Burrow’s components from splitting apart when the lights are brightest, and the pressure meter is cranked to the max.
When the Bengals started 0-2 last season, he told reporters that “everyone needs to take a deep breath and relax.”
Rather than letting the pressure get to him, Burrow uses his emotional stability and awareness to keep the team’s anxiety and worries at bay.
Playing with emotional stability doesn’t mean that he’s numb to his emotions. Burrow said that he dictates his emotions, rather than let his emotions dictate him, especially in situations like last season, when the Bengals faced double-digit deficits in four regular-season games. Three of those four games ended in losses, two of them on walk-off field goals, with the sole victory being the comeback effort in Tampa Bay.
Burrow didn’t dwell or harp on any of those four games.
“You have to be that way as a quarterback. You can say whatever you want to the locker room and you guys (the media), but once you’re on the field it’s even-keeled,” Burrow said. “You can’t be too high or too low because bad things are going to happen during the game. If you’re too low, it’s tough to get out of.”
When Burrow’s teammates look at him during challenging times, that gives them reassurance that they will be OK. Perhaps that’s what inspired the Bengals to end the 2022 season on a nine-game win streak after a 5-4 start following a blowout loss to Cleveland on Halloween.
Steed said the Bengals have an emotional anchor with someone like Burrow when things get rocky.
Former Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst said that when Burrow speaks, less is more.
“He’s so confident in his abilities and his preparation every day,” Hurst told cleveland.com back in January. “It’s infectious to this entire locker room. He doesn’t have to give a rah-rah speech every day but we know Joe is going to go about his business and be ready on Sunday.”
Don’t expect Burrow to smash any Microsoft Surface tablets, like future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady did, when things go awry. TV cameras and photographers are yet to capture an image of Burrow yelling or fuming on the sideline after a stalled drive or a game-changing mistake on a play.
Former backup quarterback Brandon Allen said that Burrow’s last resort is to get upset and chide his teammates, especially during a game. And he said Burrow does that in practice if he believes the team needs to hear it.
“He’s not the kind of guy to slam a tablet or sit there and (expletive) someone for who they are. If he feels strongly about something, he’ll let you know about it in his own way,” Allen told cleveland.com. “I think guys just love that he is who he is all the time.”
One relationship that helps Burrow have a strong grip on the locker room mood is that with former LSU teammate-turned favorite target Ja’Marr Chase. Russell explained why that authentic relationship gives Burrow a rare convenience when he expresses himself to his teammates.
“I’m sure they had that kind of backdoor relationship where Joe and Ja’Marr can talk and really know how that room is feeling,” Russell said. “And so, (Burrow) knows that he doesn’t have to be rah-rah. But when he does speak up, he does raise his voice, he probably carries a lot more weight because it is not as common as what Brady does.”
Interpersonal attractiveness: ‘I’m Joe’
The duality of Burrow’s personality is based on how he is under the spotlight versus the persona that he presents in front of the camera.
When Burrow walks into the stadium, attention gravitates his way with his pregame attire, no matter how flashy or simplistic his outfits are. One of his most simple but iconic outfits was when he wore Chase’s national championship jersey in their “homecoming” against the Saints.
While fans are busy glossing at Burrow’s more stylish and eye-popping attire, his teammates just look at him as Joe, someone who treats all of his teammates equally. That’s what gives Burrow interpersonal attractiveness.
“He’s a polarizing figure, but no one in the locker room feels like they can’t ask Joe questions. He’s so approachable to everyone in the locker room. You would think he’s the average Joe around the locker room,” Allen said in January. “And anytime he’s in the locker room around the guys or at practice, you know, he’s just like everyone else. He likes to play ping pong … I think how approachable he is in the locker room around the guys is what makes people gravitate to him the most.”
Burrow’s loose, yet organized, personality, like when he celebrates victories with his iconic cigars, creates an innate likeability that Steed said is likely a driving factor that made his jersey one of the NFL’s top sellers in 2022.
“You see him come out with like Looney Tunes sweatshirt and like a SpongeBob sweatshirt in interviews. You know, like, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. But he takes his work very seriously. And that’s a nice kind of distinction that I think people are naturally attracted to,” Steed said.
Burrow’s authenticity shines through his outspoken views on social issues. One of the most recent stances Burrow took was his disapproval of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade last year, reposting an Instagram post explaining why he disagreed with the move. Burrow also publicly expressed support for gun control after mass shootings that took place in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, last year.
He espoused support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police three years ago, taking to Twitter expressing outrage over Floyd’s death. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Burrow “won over his teammates” by pledging to take a stand against racism.
His recently launched foundation aims to fight food insecurity for children while supporting their mental health.
And whether the issue is gun control, abortion or racism, Russell said the fact Burrow has a stance, regardless of which side he’s on, has earned respect from fans, teammates and other players across the league.
“Most athletes definitely stayed away from that. He goes beyond just having a stance. He actually kind of explains a little bit beyond a little deeper of his thoughts,” Russell said. “And when you explain your thoughts, people, if they disagree with you, at least they have more to the understanding and respect your thoughts more than just an initial statement.”
All of his stances and personal initiatives reflect his own upbringing in southeastern Ohio and personal experiences in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while playing at LSU. That’s why Burrow is able to connect with and relate to his teammates from all backgrounds and demographics.
“That seems to be an authentic part of who he is. I think it’s also really consistent,” Russell said.
The King of the Jungle
The Burrow standard is the new standard in Cincinnati for years to come.
He’s likely set to receive a long-term and potentially market-resetting deal this offseason when the dust settles on the quarterback extension carousel. Money aside, Burrow’s focus isn’t getting paid. It’s staying around and building a legacy in Cincinnati — a legacy that’s never been built by his predecessors.
His last two predecessors, Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer, didn’t win a single playoff game. Burrow has now won five in two seasons and has played on football’s biggest stage. The Queen City hasn’t had an NFL Most Valuable Player since Boomer Esiason in 1988. Burrow has a chance to add another trophy to his collection.
Not just the MVP trophy. Even better.
“Yes, you may have a win here. You may have a loss here, but he’s really focused on the long term,” Steed said. “And I think that helps people kind of rally behind him as well.”
Burrow has been this way for as long as Bengals coach Zac Taylor says he can remember. Taylor said that Burrow has had the same style ever since he was a rising star at Athens High School, well before his time at Ohio State and LSU.
“It’s never changed,” Taylor said in January. “I don’t think I’ve seen it progress at all. It’s how he’s probably been his entire life for as long as I’ve known him. His personality has not changed. His demeanor has not changed. He knows he’s put in the work, and I don’t know if relaxed is the right word, but he’s got the right edge to him.
Until Burrow decides to call it a career, his edge will keep the Bengals in the Super Bowl conversation.
“It’s a major driving force in the culture change,” Hubbard said.