On Super Bowl Sunday, I was writing a blog about the inspirational examples of two of my heroes for individuals in all professions, Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll and Saturday Night Live Featured Player Leslie Jones. They suffered brutal setbacks in their early years, overcame them and achieved far greater successes. Even if Carroll lost the Super Bowl (which this New England fan hoped for), he was too respected for his reputation to be tarnished. Oh, how wrong I was.
Carroll has met his critics head-on in interviews after the game. Yet the Internet still teems with angry voices raging at him. His defenders such as a gaming theorist in The New York Times are shouted down. However, I have faith in his survival skills despite that call for a pass on the one-yard line. Why?
Fifteen years ago, no one thought that Pete Carroll would have been a Head Coach in a Super Bowl, never mind his second straight one. I know. I was there, albeit in a very small way. In the spring of 2000 in Boston, an administrative assistant at my dot com company, myteam.com (now The Active Network), gasped as an energetic, just under-50-year-old man bounded into our office. "Who is he?" she asked. "He is so, so handsome." When we told her that handsome man was the just fired New England Head Coach Pete Carroll, a newly hired advisor to our start-up, her face fell. "Oh," she said. "Didn't he like, lose all the time at the Patriots." (Not everyone in New England belongs to Patriots Nation.)
He really hadn't lost all the time. In three seasons with New England he had a 27-21 record, made the playoffs twice and placed first in the AFC East once. However, our disappointed administrative assistant was not alone in her opinion. Fans placed "For Sale" signs on his lawn before he was fired. Many of my close friends in the sports world (I'd worked at ESPN for nearly 7 years and had just written a book on sports) shared their negative opinions with me. He was a nice guy with a good defensive mind. However, he was too loose, too positive, too fun to be an NFL Head Coach. He'd make a great Defensive Coordinator in the Pros or Head Coach in a second tier Division 1 school
My friends would have denied those comments last week. Fifteen years later with one Super Bowl Championship, Two National Championships (albeit one vacated) and a 34-game USC winning streak (albeit 14 wins vacated) on his resume, he was roaring into his second straight Super Bowl. No one was calling him a bad coach despite a few clouds (e.g., those pesky vacated wins and National Championship) here and there.
So what changed over the years? And what can all of us building and managing careers learn from him? During his ten months away from the game in 2000, Carroll took a series of advisory positions with businesses as well as the NFL where he observed leadership and management from different vantage points. At this time, he crafted his own philosophy with a matching blueprint for leading football teams, "Winning Forever," which stressed both the competitive and fun aspects of the game. He stayed true to his own positive style and voice, which is not the norm in football. (See: Bill Belichick). He took a step back with the USC job, albeit at a blue chip Division I program, which enabled him to move forward again. And he did.
In my present position at BraveNewTalent, a company that offers an online knowledge-sharing platform for the enterprise, I have used his example to engage stakeholders in our communities that deal with individuals in transition (e.g., from the military to civilian life, from employed to unemployed back to employed). And I've also used the example of Leslie Jones, this year's breakout star at Saturday Night Live and as of last week, a future Ghostbuster.
Jones's story parallels Carroll's in many ways. While he had "For Sale" signs on his lawn, she bombed in her first appearance at LA Comedy's store and was booed opening up for Jamie Foxx. She too took time away, held various jobs and waited until she had some life experiences to get back on the stage. As she noted in a Reddit discussion in December, she also found her own authentic voice. She wrote, "I pretty much know who I am as a person, so that's why my voice is so real. Because I'm honest. It took me a long time to accept myself, people, and once I did, it was on and crackin."
She definitely began "crackin." She had a 20+-year career as a standup comedian with her own Showtime special prior to being hired by SNL as a writer in January 2014. This past fall at the age of 47, the show added her as the oldest Featured Player in their history. Since then, she's been described in such glowing terms as "breakout" star in the magazines and on the websites of EW, People, US, Deadline et al. Last week, she was announced as one of the four female Ghostbusters, the casting equivalent for a woman comedian of making the Super Bowl.
But in her short time at SNL, she's had her own major controversies, her own intercepted passes at the 1-yard line. In her first appearance on Weekend Update, she included some slave jokes on the challenges of dating as a tall black woman. For single women of a certain age of all ethnicities, the anguish in her humor came through clearly. To me, she was looking from a different vantage point at the same issue-a strong, vibrant woman's journey in the dating world-as Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones, the Sex & the City women, even Jane Austen's Lizzie Bennet. Then this past fall, she lost her place in a skit with Chris Rock, which resulted in some awkward pauses and pacing.
The backlash to both incidents on social media was brutal. Like Carroll, Jones dealt with her actions swiftly and honestly. In a series of Tweets last spring, she spoke about the pain behind her Weekend Update bit. And in her Reddit and other interviews these past months, she has taken ownership of her flub in the Rock skit by simply stating that she became confused in her first live non-Update appearance.
Leslie Jones might have appreciated the comments of ESPN's Colin Cowherd in defense of Pete Carroll the day after the Super Bowl. He spoke movingly about the inability for anyone to be perfect at all times yet the ease and ability of so many others to expect it. He gave Carroll a pass.
I'm with Cowherd. In my universe, we learn the most from individuals like Carroll and Jones, who achieve and stumble in larger-than-life ways. And their lessons are powerful. Don't give up. Take time away to reflect. Find your own authentic voice. Build your philosophy and blueprint around it. Take a step back, if you must. If you make mistakes, own your decisions. And again-don't give up.
Thus, I hope that Jones's Ghostbusters is a mega-blockbuster and that Pete Carroll's next Super Bowl appearance is nothing short of brilliant... as long as it happens after the retirement of Tom Brady.