Leadership lessons from Seahawks Super Bowl fail: Own it and Grow

(This story appeared in the Chicago Tribune February 3, 2015)
By John Carpenter
Blue Sky Reporter
‘The real lesson that Pete Carroll should share with his team,’ according to 1871 CEO Howard Tullman
Entrepreneurs talk boldly about risk and about embracing the lessons of failure when things go wrong.

But what if one’s failure is epic and instantaneous, with 100-million-plus people watching live and most of them agreeing the risk you took was really, really dumb?

We asked a few entrepreneurs and leadership experts to put themselves in Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s shoes. Imagine you’ve blown it. What do you do next?

“The first step, before you talk to your team or your staff, is you have to get out of bed,” said Julie Friedman Steele, CEO and founder of the 3D Printer Experience. “You are your own harshest critic. So the critical first step is you have to get out of bed, and lead by example.”

In case you missed it, here’s what Carroll remembered when he got out of bed Monday, after his team’s 28-24 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday night.

The Seahawks had the ball on the Patriots’ 1 yard line, trailing by four with less than a minute to play. With three chances to score, the obvious and safest play was to hand off to powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, seen as a good bet to get the yard the Seahawks needed — if not on that try, then on the next try or the one after that. On the previous play, Lynch rushed for four yards on first down to put the ball on the 1.

Yet on second down, Carroll opted for a pass play, which New England intercepted — effectively giving quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots their fourth Super Bowl title and setting off a Twitter bomb of second-guessing.

“I immediately turned to my husband and said ‘Why did he do that?’” said Ellen Rudnick, executive director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Rudnick said the key for Carroll, like all who make risky decisions that fail, is to learn and grow.

“Sometimes bad decisions can in fact cost the entrepreneur potential investors, strategic partners, or customers,” she said. “In this case it cost the Seahawks the game. There can be devastating consequences from bad decisions, but the important thing is to learn from them and not repeat them.”

1871 CEO Howard Tullman said by email: “Mistakes are a critical part of the process, and the rules are always the same: You make ‘em, you admit ‘em, you learn from ‘em, and you move on.”

Tullman pointed out that Patriots rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler, who made the victory-clinching interception, recognized the play as it unfolded.

“Here’s the real lesson that Pete Carroll should share with his team,” Tullman said. “They got beat because a rookie did his homework. It wasn’t really a bad call, although they were a little too smart for their own good.”

TechNexus CEO Terry Howerton said entrepreneurs sometimes overthink situations when the most obvious choice is most likely to work.

“A run made perfect sense and was the easy, non-outside-the-box, most-likely-to-succeed thing to do,” Howerton said in an email. “Sometimes entrepreneurs, or coaches, or all of us, try too hard to be imaginative, when just good execution is all that was needed.”

John Challenger, president and CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said he’s seen situations in which job seekers are about to land the job they want, then “blow it” at the last moment in an interview.

“A person is about to get the job offer, and they say something that they don’t need to say, and the offer is pulled back,” he said. “It’s a done deal. Then, somehow or another, it’s gone.”

Challenger said he tells people in this situation — and would tell Carroll — that they should own the mistake.

“He needs to say: ‘I made a bad decision. Here’s what went into it. Let’s talk it out,’” Challenger said.

Josh Inglis, founder of Propllr, a startup-focused PR firm, said there are three steps forward for Carroll.

“First, be brutally honest and transparent with everyone,” Inglis said.

“Explain what happened, how it happened and steps you have taken to prevent the problem from happening again. Second, speak directly to each of the people your decision hurt. In the Seahawks’ case, that means addressing the fans, the players, the back-office and even other coaches on the team.

“And third, once you’ve addressed the problem and fixed it, move on. There’s always another game.”

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