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Reinventing: What Government Leaders Can Learn From Tim Tebow

Many government technology leaders are struggling. From national headlines to local audit findings, the majority of the news has not been good. Meanwhile, public trust in government as a whole is near historic lows. What can be done? Is it time for reinvention? Back to the drawing board? If so, there is a lot to learn from the journey and actions of Tim Tebow.

Credit: Flickr/Intel Free Press

Government technology leaders at every level of public service are facing calls for change. From an explosion in data breaches to legacy system failures to the amazing new technology advances and innovative opportunities available, the pressure to deliver has never been higher. Add in public-sector pay inequalities compared with the private-sector as well as the time it takes to implement major new programs, and it is easy to see why government leaders are currently stressed.

Where can one go for motivation to continue? What stories inspire perseverance in the midst of long odds? What does it take to achieve that dream job or career progression? If things aren’t going well, can you reinvent your core skills? How can you overcome naysayers and colleagues who seem to mock your every move? What happens if/when you fail? What character traits matter most?

As we head into a new football season, I think there is no better place to turn in 2015 than the reinvention of Tim Tebow. And yes, this story transcends sports and applies to everyone who strives to improve.

But first, how bad are the government problems? Is reinvention really necessary?

Background – A Problem of Trust

Trust in government is not doing well right now. According to this University of Chicago poll taken earlier this year, “Only 23 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court, 11 percent in the executive branch and 5 percent in Congress.”

Gallup recently found that trust and confidence in government was near historic lows.

How does the younger generation feel about government? A recent Harvard poll amongst millennials found our young people have little faith in government.

Getting to more personal discussions around government employee actions, the recent stories of government employees behaving badly by going to inappropriate websites like Ashley Madison and using their government email addresses in that process. These actions are not helping the image of the millions of hard-working government employees around the country.

Talking Government Technology’s Poor Image

When we get more technology specific, the picture doesn’t improve.

The recent data breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is being called the worst hack of all time by many experts.

The rollout of the Obamacare website and new health services for millions of Americans repeatedly faced major problems and system failures. Back in 2014, the Huffington Post reported that: “Obamacare's rocky implementation has already weathered paralyzing glitches and a public outcry over insurance policy cancellations for millions of people in the health plan market for individuals....”

And the picture is only slightly better at state and local levels. Public perceptions are backed up by stories of IT failure. For example, Oregon abandoned its health information exchange and Texas has faced numerous contracting problems with many vendors.

And there is also a public perception that government leaders are not held accountable for failures

Sure, there are many positive government technology stories that we could point to as well. Success stories from governments in Michigan or states like North Carolina, where major reinvention efforts are well underway. Sadly, many of those stories get drowned out by more negative headlines like those above.

But rather than digging deeper into government stories, I want to take a fun turn. I find that most people can benefit and learn in new ways by examining our problems and potential solutions from different perspectives – and ones that are not closely tied to their daily operational duties. 

Why Tim Tebow?

credit: Associated Press/Al Tielemans

Americans love their football. From Pop Warner youth leagues to high school football to the NCAA to the NFL, we follow the gridiron action. And one of the most talked-about, and yet controversial, topics in America’s sports world today is the reinvention of Tim Tebow. 

No doubt, everyone seems to have an opinion of Tim Tebow for different reasons, some of which have nothing to do with how he plays football. Many wonder: Why has Tebowmania continued? 

  Some people still love him, and some people hate him – but almost everyone has an opinion. (Sound like government IT to you?)

In this July 2015 article, USA Today recently called him a “different player.” I want to focus on his ongoing reinvention.

That’s right, the man who was once the obsession of the NFL a few years ago in Denver, the quarterback who also failed in New York and New England, and the celebrity who became a college broadcaster for ESPN’s SEC Network, went back to school and relearned how to throw the football.

7 Career Lessons from Tim Tebow’s Reinvention

Here are seven lessons that we can all apply, in the midst of Tebow’s evolving reinvention journey.

1)      Dream big. Tim Tebow has repeatedly said that his big dream is to be an NFL quarterback. He hasn’t backed down from that assertion over several years, despite numerous setbacks. But more than just idle words, he puts his passion, his drive and his actions behind his words.

While most people will never play in the NFL, we all have careers, dreams, hopes and aspirations.  What innovative ideas are we holding back? What changes can make our people, processes and technology better? What actions can we take? What are the next steps needed?

2)      Get the new skills required. Reinvent yourself with new skills when necessary.  No one questioned Tebow’s athletic abilities or success in college football. And yet, despite remarkable (short-term) success playing for the Denver Broncos, he still lacked the ability to move forward in the NFL in 2013, after being cut from the Patriots.

What happened next? Tebow got the best advice available in the industry and began a rigorous two-year process to relearn how to throw the football with a quicker release. Numerous reports now say he has improved in his throwing. This is a huge deal for a potential NFL quarterback, and most would even say it is the fundamental skill.

Successful technology pros understand that you can't keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. We need to constantly reassess our skills and the chemistry of our teams. Study best practices. Build required relationships and get a mentor to help. We can’t rely on past successes. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow – even if you need to go back to school and relearn a few things.

3)      Develop good communication skills. Tim Tebow is articulate, poised, and stays on point in media interviews. He knows what to say and what not to say. Here is one of his famous speeches while in college, given with passion after a loss while at Florida.

Technology leaders can learn a lot about dealing with the media by watching Tim Tebow. His expertise at public speaking, motivating team members, and engaging the public is shown, even facing hard times and failure. This communication skill takes practice and discipline to develop.

4)      Perseverance – hard work.  I love the saying: “Hustle beats talent, when talent doesn't hustle.” And no one works harder at his craft than Tim Tebow. Tebow is known for being the first player on and the last player off the practice field. He leads by example. He has never been accused of being a slacker.

More than that, when Tebow falls down – he gets back up. Yes – we see repeated failure in Tebow’s play, but that’s what makes this story so relevant for all of us. We all fail, but that should not stop the dedication to improve and get better every day.

5)      Watch your words, attitude and body language. Tebow demonstrates a positive attitude each day. He walks the talk, even when the cameras are not on.

This item is similar to #3, except internal to your team, management and peers. Are you offering solutions or just problems? Are you willing to go through the ruthless analysis, and admit when things are not working, and yet remain positive with hope? Are you an enabler or a disabler? (One tip, ask around for your reputation and get feedback from friends and even “foes.”)

6)      Ignore the distractions, take (and learn from) constructive criticism, but block out naysayers.

Tebow has been mocked – laughed-at, called incompetent, told “he’s not a quarterback,” and much worse. Of the seven traits I mention here, this one is perhaps the hardest for most people. Tebow’s stamina amazes me. He has the Ronald Reagan gift of staying positive and not attacking the questioners.

His critics say he was once great in college, but not good enough for the NFL. He lacks the qualifications and skills. Tebow, so far, refuses to accept that diagnosis and remains committed to change, learn and grow. He may even fail in the end, but he “leaves it all on the field.”

Government technology leaders usually face plenty of criticism. Belief in your mission, goals and abilities is key, as is an ability to move past negative criticism that just demoralizes your team. Yes, constructive criticism can be helpful in the right setting (see #2), but most negative jibes are not helpful. Watch Tim Tebow’s focus and ability to not let those attacks get to him. 

7)      Character matters. How you treat people “off the field” matters. Display personal integrity. Tim Tebow gets attention for his sincere beliefs put into action with numerous charities and helpful projects and motivational speeches. Watch this video to get a sense of this.

But more than leading nonprofits, he displays good character. Mike Ditka, former Chicago Bears head coach, said this same thing recently.

For government technology pros, there is no substitute for good character and integrity. Building a positive career and team leadership skills can only happen if people trust you. Involvement in charities outside of work can help, but demonstrating positive character is at the core of good leadership.

Final Thoughts

Mahatma Gandi once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. “ 

Will Tebow make the Philadelphia Eagles? Some experts say no, but other experts say yes.

No doubt, this story is far from over. Tebow could crash and burn. He may get cut from the Eagles. While recent articles seem to point to him making the team, most are saying, "This is his last chance."

Nevertheless, his reinvention is a model for all of us. And especially for technology leaders around the world. Whether he ever plays another down of football in the NFL regular season or not, Tim Tebow’s  reinvention offers lessons for us all. Tebow has been called many things. But no one will ever accuse him of not reaching for the stars, following his dream and putting those desires into action.

Can the same be said of us?

Government technology leaders can learn a lot from Tim Tebow’s successes and failures – and his current attempts at reinvention.  

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.