Leadership Lessons from the 5-9 Chicago Bears.

My good friend Tim Kanold is a die-hard Chicago Bears fan.

Spend enough time with him and he will tell you ALL about the greatness that is the Bears.  But he has this REALLY bad habit of picking on me for being a Buffalo Bills fan.  In fact, as a math geek, he always likes to point out how statistically unlikely it is to actually LOSE four straight Super Bowls.  He also likes to do some fancy math thing that I don’t really understand with the number of points that the Bills lost each of those consecutive Super Bowls by.


That’s why I have totally LOVED watching Chicago implode this season!

Not only has it been compelling — as Tim will tell you, the Bears ARE NFL bluebloods destined to win always and forever — it has been a complete disaster.  After all, the Bears really SHOULD have been good this year.  They’ve got a stacked roster with Pro Bowl talent at most of the skill positions; they play in an easy division; and they’ve got a head coach that has been described as an “offensive guru” and a “quarterback whisperer.”

But the Bears have been bad from game one — which they lost to the Bills, by the way.  And that misery came to an apex yesterday when head coach Marc Trestman benched his starting quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of Jimmy Clausen for next week’s game against Detroit.  The city of Chicago is roiling and the drama has covered sports pages everywhere.


I’ve spent more than my fair share of time reading stories on the Bears and I’ve realized that there are a TON of lessons that school leaders can take away from the debacle.

Here’s three:

First, leadership in complex organizations depends on more than just brains.  

Check out this account and you will find out that Marc Trestman is a seriously bright guy who eats, sleeps and breathes football.  He spends tons of time watching film and is as mentally prepared as it gets for coaching an NFL team.  He’s even got an impressive resume chock-a-block full of experience at all levels in successful organizations.

But he’s also described as “lonely,” “standoffish,” and “socially dysfunctional” by people who know him.  Apparently he has a bad habit of carrying himself with “an air of intellectual superiority.”

You see the problem, right?  When you are leading any organization, being brilliant just ain’t enough to motivate the people who are working for you.  Instead, they want to be inspired by you.  They want to believe in you.  And they want to know that you care — about them as individuals and about the organization as a whole.

Trestman didn’t fail because he didn’t have the right credentials, qualifications or expertise.  Trestman failed because he didn’t give a rip about people, and that’s a mistake that no leader can afford to make.

Second, leadership depends on telling your own story.

One of the more interesting twists in this story is that Trestman didn’t tell the media that he had decided to bench Jay Cutler in his daily press conference even after being asked directly whether or not it was time to move on from the struggling quarterback.  Instead, the team released a statement a few hours after the press conference.

That’s a mistake, y’all.  Trestman had the chance to tell his own story.  He had the chance to stand up for his decision and to provide rationale that may have convinced important stakeholders that he was making the right choice.  But he didn’t — and he has spent the last 24 hours being second guessed by the entire sporting world as a result.

Leaders NEVER miss opportunities to tell their own stories — especially in a digital world where information spreads instantly and without clear control.  The simple truth is that when you lead organizations that the community cares about, SOMEONE is going to be talking about you. They might be touting your accomplishments.  They might be tearing you apart.

Either way, don’t you want to be a part of the conversation?

Finally, leadership depends on remaining flexible and being ready to walk away from failed plans.

Here’s the saddest part of the story for Bears fans:  There’s literally no hope of a better season next year.  The root of their problems rest in the fact that they’ve got a quarterback that nobody believes in.  He’s turned the ball over more than any other player in the league this season; he shows little real fight when his team is down; and he comes across as petulant year after year.

But he’s the NFL’s highest paid player.  The Bears coughed up $22 million dollars  for Cutler this season and are on the hook for another $15 million dollars next season.  That gives Chicago next to no flexibility to fix this situation.  They’ve invested too much to simply start again.

Schools make that mistake all the time, y’all.  We commit ourselves completely to an idea, initiative or effort and spend tons of time and energy trying to pull it off.  That investment consumes us — and makes us less willing and able to walk away even when we know full-well that we’ve made a bad decision.

A concept repeated by innovators over and over again is that success depends on demonstrating a willingness to fail early and move on INSTEAD of a willingness to go all in.  Organizations who go all in become inflexible simply because they can’t imagine giving up on something they worked so hard for  Organizations who fail early and move on, however, lose little when they change directions, making it possible to sustain momentum and eventually discover truly successful solutions.

Any of this make sense?  What other lessons can we learn from the disaster that is the Chicago Bears?


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New Slide: Expecting Independence

Daniel Learned ALL about Audiences Yesterday.

You guys remember Daniel, right?  

He’s the eighth grader that discovered one day that the post he’d written for our #sugarkills blog was ranked fourth in Google’s Search results, right behind a bit from Harvard and right in front of a bit from Web MD.

Well, Daniel, Ried and Joel — who are the student leaders of our #sugarkills project — learned an interesting lesson about audiences in social spaces yesterday when an anonymous reader calling himself “Fitness Guy” stopped by and blew up our comment section*.  He started by pointing out a content error in our post on natural versus added sugars:

I came across this site because I was looking to find what people’s thought were on the difference between “natural sugar” and “added sugar.”

The statement “[n]atural sugars, along with other chemicals found in fruits and vegetables, form complex carbohydrate” is wholly false.

No sugar is a complex carbohydrate. There may be complex carbohydrates in natural foods which contain sugar (and there may very well be complex carbohydrates in foods with added sugar) – but the sugar in either is NOT “complex.”

Two hours later and obviously still a bit riled about our content error, he posted:

I’m going to post this here because I didn’t see any obvious contact info.

The information on this page is very wrong. Please, educate yourself for a few moments via a simple Google search. Remove this false information from the internet – as you can tell from the comments above people do get confused.

I was out of school for a professional development session, so the boys worked together to figure out how to respond on their own.  They sent me an email saying something along the lines of “some guy thinks we are stupid and that we should delete our whole blog” and then crafted what I thought was a pretty impressive response for eighth graders:

Our #SugarKills team works very hard to educate ourselves and our readers about sugar. We take the time to research a topic, and produce quality work. These posts aren’t written in a couple minutes, and are accomplishments as a blog should speak to the credibility of our content. We provide link(s) in our posts to show that we are credible and are not posting false information. -Ried D.

Not bad for teenagers, right?  That didn’t satisfy Fitness Guy, though — who responded two hours later with:

Allow me to quote from your link to the Mayo Clinic.

“A few facts about sugar

All sugar, whether natural or processed, is a type of simple carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. Fruits, vegetables and dairy foods all naturally contain sugar.”

That’s when I got involved, explaining to Fitness Guy that he was speaking to middle schoolers and that his tone was inappropriate in any productive conversation — but particularly in a conversation with kids who are twelve and thirteen years old.  I was pretty direct with him, suggesting that my kids were likely to learn as much from his critical approach as they were from his suggestions about their content.

He apologized, but suggested that there was no arguing the fact that he was right.  He questioned my ability to supervise my students, and then made a final suggestion:

We all get things wrong, the adult thing is to own it, fix it, and grow from it. It’s better than misinforming everyone that reads this.

The adult thing.  After telling a bunch of middle schoolers to “educate themselves” and then dropping snark in reply to their reasoned response, he wants us to do the adult thing.


Here are three takeaways from the experience:

Takeaway 1:  My kids learned a valuable lesson about the responsibility that comes when you are writing for a public audience.

One of the lessons that I try to teach through our #sugarkills project is that when you are writing for a public audience, you HAVE to carefully polish every post.  Mistakes aren’t okay because they leave others confused and they spread misinformation.

That’s a lesson that all of my #sugarkills kids take seriously.  They really do read and link to source material in every post — and they really do try to accurately summarize the things that they are learning.  They take a ton of pride in our blog and see themselves as an important resource for their readers.

The most beautiful moments to me, however, are when they get it wrong.  Every time their thinking is challenged by a reader, it forces them to reflect on what they know.  Today, there were five or six kids working together to find and correct the mistakes in their original post.  They started making revisions already — and I’m sure that work will continue tomorrow.

My guess is that this experience will sit with them for a long while — and that they will take accuracy more seriously than ever before.

Takeaway 2: My kids learned that criticism is pointless when you want to have influence.

Make no mistake about it:  My kids were pretty darn offended by Mr. Guy.  They took his comments as attacks and were instantly defensive.

And THAT’s an important lesson, too.

What Fitness Guy inadvertently taught them is that people who want to change minds are WAY more likely to ask questions than uncork with criticism.  What he also taught them is that being nasty doesn’t get you very far with other people.

I hope that they will remember the reaction that his tone caused and the impact that it had on (1). their willingness to listen and (2). his ability to influence their actions. If they do, I’m sure that they will become more responsible participants in online conversations than they would have been otherwise.

Takeaway 3: I’m wondering whether giving my kids the chance to write for public audiences still makes sense.

Here’s a simple truth:  No matter what source I’m exploring online, the complete lack of civility demonstrated by readers who leave comments shocks me.

People denigrate each other.  People curse at each other.  People try to one-up one another.  People shout at each other.  And they do it from behind anonymous usernames, giving them a sense of invulnerability.  “I can call you an idiot,” they think, “even if I’d never do it in a face-to-face conversation.”

There’s nothing productive happening in those spaces, y’all — no reflective thought, no intellectual give-and-take, no respectful dialogue designed to build knowledge together.  Instead, comment sections have become places where people do little more than preen and piss on one another.

So why am I bothering to teach my kids about writing for public audiences when those audiences are just as likely to want to tear them down as they are to build them up?  Wouldn’t we be better off if we wrote only for audiences that would model the kinds of responsible behaviors that we want our kids to develop?

John Spencer was helping me to debrief last night and he said something brilliant: “Just because a conversation is open to the world doesn’t mean that it will promote open dialogue, Bill.”

That’s true, isn’t it?  And if John’s right, what does that mean for our decisions to encourage kids to write in online spaces?

Looking forward to hearing what all y’all think.


*Blogger’s Note:  I unpublished the comments that Fitness Guy left on our blog.  They left a sour taste in my mouth and I didn’t want them to discourage my kids from writing.  Also, they are planning on writing a reflection about the experience.  I’ll share whatever it is that they create.  


Related Radical Reads:

Daniel Learned that He Had Power Yesterday

Interview with the #SUGARKILLS Gang

My Kids, a Cause and our Classroom Blog


Will You be Relentless?

I’ve been feeling more than a bit spent lately.  Call it the December Doldrums.

What bugs me the most is that I feel tapped out professionally. While everything that I’m doing is as solid as it ever was — I’m writing a ton, I’m delivering solid PD sessions, my classroom instruction still motivates me — nothing is coming easy to me right now and that makes it hard to find the motivation to push.  I’m grinding and producing and meeting all of my responsibilities, but I want my work — both within and beyond the classroom — to be more than a grind.  I want it to be energizing.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

So I took a bit of time off this morning.  Went to the bagel shop for breakfast and a bit of reading.  It’s my selfish treat — an escape from the always-on life that can be so draining.  I don’t open my email.  I don’t rush.  I don’t worry about the stack of crap sitting on my desk waiting to be done.  I read — and reading is relaxing.

Today’s title was Graceful by Seth Godin — and check out the quote that I stumbled across two pages into my meal.  It was so perfect, I had to turn it into a slide:

(click here to enlarge, download and view original image credit on Flickr)

So here I am being relentless.  

Thanks for the reminder, Seth.  I needed it.


Related Radical Reads:

How Gritty are Today’s Learners?

What Seth Doesn’t Know about Schools

Check Out These Technology Integration Scenarios

So let’s get something straight:  There REALLY ARE right and wrong ways to drive technology integration efforts in schools — and there REALLY ARE schools and districts wasting tons of time, cash, and political good will by “investing” in digital tools and services without ever changing learning spaces in a meaningful way.

That’s sad, y’all.  Not only do we lose credibility in the eyes of the general public when we botch technology integration efforts, we lose credibility in the eyes of the kids in our classrooms.

Can we REALLY be surprised when critics openly question our profession when they pony up tax dollars for tools that have almost no perceptible impact on the kinds of outcomes that our communities care about?  More importantly, can we REALLY be surprised when our students openly question the value of school when the work we do IN our classrooms rarely resembles the kind of learning done OUTSIDE of our classrooms?

To help all y’all think through the quality of the technology integration efforts in your school and/or district, I whipped up the following set of fictious scenarios:

Handout – Technology Scenarios

They describe the technology integration choices made by five different educators.  My thinking is that readers will work in groups to read the scenarios one at a time.  For each scenario, readers are asked a reflection question designed to force thinking around just what good technology integration is supposed to look like in action.

Is there a way that you could use these scenarios to prompt thinking in your setting?  


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Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored

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