Leadership Lessons from the Seattle Seahawks

I managed to avoid tears and too much screaming last week. Obviously I am very sad that the Seahawks are not playing tonight, but for a team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year, and that was one of the youngest in the league, they had an amazing run. Their unexpected success says a lot about the raw talent and dedication of these players, but it also says a lot about successful leadership—including lessons for those of us who do most of our leading in the course or classroom.

Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson’s approach to leadership was perhaps most dramatically in evidence after the heartbreaker in Atlanta. When asked, during his end-of-season press conference, how long it took him to get over the loss, he answered “until the end of the tunnel.”  A great leader is always looking towards the future, which does not mean ignoring the past: Wilson started watching tape of the game right away to think about the ways he could improve next season. Looking towards the future as a leader means considering past mistakes without shame or embarrassment but, rather, as places to improve.

There are two ways to apply this lesson as a teacher: to your own performance, and to your students’ performance. To improve my own performance, I keep a teaching journal in Scrivener, with one file for each course. Before each class meeting, I add a folder for the day and, in that folder, I compose a plan (always flexible, often vague). Immediately after class, I add a new text within the same folder describing what actually happened in class, including what went well and what could have gone better. Later, usually within a few days, I add two more texts to the folder: one describing how I want to improve during the following class meeting and one describing how I want to improve the next time I teach the same topic.

I also want my students to be able to take this kind of approach with their own education. I do not believe in using shame in a pedagogical setting because it gets in the way of this kind of self-improvement. I try as much as possible to phrase comments on student papers to suggest how students can do better next time (whether on a new paper or a new draft) instead of what they did wrong. I know that might sound soft, but is in fact, practical: the old assignment is done. Learning is all about doing better next time.

Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll’s stated philosophy as a coach emphasizes constant competition and improvement, but what I find particularly striking is his ability to see what players have the possibility to become and then give them the chance to become that. Without a coach like Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson might very well have been sitting on the bench this year.

Anyone in a leadership position needs to know how to see these possibilities in people. It is easy, as a teacher, to complain about what students do not know and cannot or will not do. It is harder, but essential, to see what they may be able to do given the chance.

Richard Sherman

It might surprise people who do not cheer for the Seahawks to see a player known mostly for trash talk, Twitter trolling, and winning an appeal that allowed him to avoid a four-game suspension listed as someone from whom you can learn about leadership. Sherman, however, took huge risks in expressing his confidence as loudly as he could. Mouthing off to Tom Brady was a huge risk, but when a risk like that starts to pay off, then others start to follow. His confidence became something the team shared.

What separates him from being simply a loud-mouthed narcissist is that he knows to whom he is accountable: his team and his supporters (not the haters).


As teachers, if we want to lead in the classroom, we have to take risks too. Now, I’m not suggesting that we post pictures to Twitter of sad-looking critics with whom we disagree and caption them #UMadBro (then again, sometimes academic debate a little too staid), but what we can do is show students our rough drafts marked up. We can talk about times we have failed—times journals have rejected our work—and then show them that we are still standing and still confident.

The Seahawks will be back next year; teachers can always do better next term. Leadership may take different specific forms depending on the context, but a lot of these more general lessons can be transferred between domains.

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