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.

#sheesh

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.

#awesome

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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Leadership Lessons Learned from Bridezillas

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

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2 comments

  1. Sonia Quinlan

    I love a good football analogy, and you did it beautifully. Not only do I love the message, especially point 1 about relationships. I also enjoyed having a good roll in the fracture of the Bears. I’m a Lions fan, so I know about a team overcommitting to a bad plan; and I’m a full time classroom teacher, so I’ve witnessed and participated in the same. It’s so hard to make the call to abandon something in which you’ve invested – hope and money. How do you know when the quarterback is no longer coachable and needs to be benched?

    While I’m here, thank you for all of your posts; I read often and seldom comment, and you’ve had a big, positive influence on my teaching and leadership over the past few years.

    • Bill Ferriter

      Hey Sonia,

      First, sorry for the slow reply! I’ve been struggling with the flu this week and grinding through the end of a quarter at school. More than a little behind, that’s for sure.

      Second, thanks a ton for the kind words! I’m always jazzed to hear from people who think my content matters, that’s for sure. While I write for myself, I also love knowing that people are taking value from the bits that I create.

      Finally, how do you know when a quarterback is no longer coachable? Good question — but in many cases, it’s a question we shouldn’t even have to ask. If we invest heavily in something — or someone — it damn well BETTER be coachable! In the case of Cutler, anyone making THAT much money shouldn’t need any coaching at all. In the case of school reform efforts, anything that we spend THAT much money on or THAT much time on ought to pay dividends without a ton of investment from us.

      If we aren’t seeing immediate returns from something that requires huge investment, then we are making the wrong investment.

      Does that make sense?
      Bill