6 things Seattle schools can learn from the Seahawks

There's a reason the Seahawks keep winning. How Seattle Public Schools could architect a few more W's of their own.
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Russell Wilson hoists the NFC Championship trophy.

There's a reason the Seahawks keep winning. How Seattle Public Schools could architect a few more W's of their own.

Crosscut has recently been asking both experts and members of the public for ideas about education.

One source of great ideas is close at hand — one of the region’s current organizational success stories, the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks, in their current iteration, are built on core organizational and operational principles that could be instructive for a host of organizations, including Seattle Public Schools. Here are a half-dozen of those key principles:

1. The role of ownership is crucial, but limited. Paul Allen doesn’t try to run the team on the field. He selects the team's key leaders and provides the resources needed for them to do their jobs. Then he keeps a respectful distance. That's a contrast to the role owners play in some other, less successful teams. Case in point: Washington, D.C.'s NFL franchise.

Within a school system, the parallel to team ownership would be the school board. Recently, education expert Paul Hill noted on Crosscut that successful boards define a limited scope of operations for themselves. They don’t engage in programmatic or day to day management.

A board really has two responsibilities — to secure an excellent leader as superintendent, and then to provide that leadership with the resources that he or she needs to do their job. With five superintendents in the last ten years, the Seattle School Board is arguably failing at its core task — providing support and accountability for the superintendent. That points to the second transferable principle.

2. Effective and empowered leadership. The Seahawks have it in head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Carroll in particular is the architect of a compelling vision about a way of playing football and building a team.

Effective leaders identify the key challenges facing an organization and mobilize people to take on the work. They keep people focused. They set the tone. Without effective leadership, an organizational vacuum develops into which all sorts of people and agendas flood. The result is chaos.

The Seahawks' two key leaders, Carroll and Schneider, respect each other. Each defers to the other in their area of responsibility. That is to say that, like owner Paul Allen, Carroll and Schneider mind their boundaries. They do their job. They don’t try to do someone else’s job for them. This philosophy carries over to the field, where you frequently hear players say they just need to do their job and trust their teammates to do theirs.

In the case of Seattle schools, the superintendent is a key leader responsible for setting the tone and vision for the district. Although Susan Enfield showed great promise during her brief tenure, the closest the district has come to finding a consistent, strong vision in the last 20 years was in John Stanford's superintendency.

3. In functional organizational teams, people play their part and they mind their boundaries. Sometimes, when things go wrong on the football field, you will hear Seahawk players say they “tried to do too much.” That is, they tried to do someone else’s job. When that happens, problems ensue.

Back in my soccer coaching days, I tried to wean young kids off of bunch ball — when everyone runs directly to the ball — and help them learn to play their position. Lots of dysfunctional organizations never learned how to stop playing bunch ball. Everyone has to be in on everything, people are monitoring everyone but themselves. Soccer works when instead of everyone running to the ball — bunch ball — people play their position.

In schools, this means that the board, the superintendent, upper level district staff, principals and teachers must respect the boundaries of one anothers' roles.

4. “Getting the right people on the bus.” In their first year on the job, Carroll and Schneider moved players in and out at a dizzying pace. They sent many — most — of the team's existing players packing and brought in new players who fit what they were trying to do. As many as 200 personnel changes took place for the Seahawks in the early years of the new administration.

While that pace has slowed, Carroll and Scheider are still willing to help someone find the door if they don’t fit with what they are trying to do. This year’s shocking mid-season trade of Percy Harvin is a case in point.

For schools, this means that leadership builds its own team from supervisors to principals. And it means that principals build their own teams within their schools. This is where it gets tough: Currently, prinicipals have almost no power to get rid of teachers or staff who are not contributing and who may be undermining the operation. Unions have perfected the art of protecting their members from accountability and have resisted even modest efforts to change. Until there is some re-balancing of power in this respect, school leadership will face an uphill battle.

In this respect, the school systems appear just about the opposite of the Seahawks. In the schools leadership, at both superintendent and principal levels changes constantly, while the rank and file stay put. We need to get longer tenure of effective leaders with greater capacity for movement and change at the level of teachers and staff.

5. Building a successful culture of teamwork. Again, “teamwork” is a word we hear a lot — the reality isn’t as common. But after the Harvin exit this year, the team had its come-to-Jesus moment. As Carroll has put it, “What happened in the middle of the year was they found the connection of what team is all about. And that’s supporting the guys around you, and they found that and embraced it.”

A successful school or school system also needs that sense of team, of being in this work together, completing each other in the work and believing in one another. Where you find a really great school — and there are many in the Seattle system — you find these qualities.

6. A fan base that believes. The Seahawks have the 12's. A school system needs its own supportive community behind it. For the most part, Seattle voters have been solidly supportive of the schools in regular levy votes. But there’s work to be done — always — in building a community that really believes in our schools.

It is true, of course, that in many respects an NFL team and a large city school district are different kinds of animals. As big an operation as the Seahawks are, the Seattle School District is a larger and more complex organization. The resource base is different and the legal requirements are too.

Still, many of the principles observed in the Seahawks can be generalized not only to our schools, but in all sorts of Seattle organizations.

My experience working in Seattle has led me to conclude that, while people here seem enamored with endless process, there is also a deep desire for effective leadership. The city's enthusiasm for the Seahawks underscores the point: We care more about getting the job done and putting up some “W’s” than we sometimes admit.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.