Lessons from the Bee

It was the energetic Vanya, with the warm your heart smile, against, the very laid back, almost zen-like Gokul. Two heavyweights slugging it out, round after round after round. And when it was all over, the winner’s trophy was held up by… Both!

thQ5V4WM2OOnce again, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, just outside of Washington DC. There were 285 kids, from a starting number of over 11 million, who had earned their way to the national finals. The 285 become 50 semi-finalists, then 10 finalists, and finally, 2 winners. No matter what criteria you may use to judge success, being welcomed to the stage at the national finals is an unbelievable accomplishment.

The competition was not only highly entertaining, it was filled with some great lessons about leadership and life. I would like to offer some personal observations about three of those lessons, which stuck out for me.

Lesson One: it was a pleasure watching young kids, thoroughly embrace the concept of accountability, a subject which often seems much too remote in the outside world. When the spellers heard the agonizing ding of the bell, indicating they had misspelled the word, they did something unusual. After their immediate looks of surprise or disappointment, they said “thank you” to the pronouncer and the judges, and left to the grateful applause of the audience – and their fellow competitors. When asked about what had just happened, here is what they did not say.

• I never did really hear the word very well
• I got a much tougher word than some of the others
• I did not get very good examples or explanations about the word
• My baby brother made it difficult to sleep last night, and I was not fresh

Rather, they commented about how they did their best in trying to figure out the word, and they just came up short. They all owned up to the fact that they missed a letter or two, and offered no excuses. It was so refreshing. I hope all of us take this lesson to heart.

Lesson Two: There were no so-called “trophy kids” in this group. I am referring to the stereotype of youth sports today, where by simply signing up for a team, a kid is pretty well assured a trophy at the end of the season. It does not seem to matter to what extent the boy or girl attends practice, participates, does well, or whatever else. It is just “sign up, pay-up, and get a trophy.”

The kids at the National Spelling Bee earned their way by this performance. They studied and practiced hours a day, sharpening their skills and staying current. They did this while attending school and participating in other typical kid activities, such as sports, music, arts, and video games. And they competed against a number of very talented other kids, and always had to be better when standing in the limelight.

There are no entitlements or proverbial free lunches in this competition. It is a truly performance-based environment, where the same rules apply for everyone. Think of all the problems in the workplace that occur due to issues of entitlement, or questions about performance standards or questionable measurements? Perhaps the Bee is a performance management model to be studied more closely.

Finally, and one of my favorite lessons: there can be more than one winner. The crowd was pulling for all of the kids, and one could literally feel the joy when Gokul, nonchalantly and correctly spelled the final word – with no questions or hesitation – to join Vanya in the winner’s circle. As a member of the audience, it was awesome to see both of these inspired efforts equally recognized.

I sometimes wonder, if winning in the workplace was defined differently, might it produce higher levels of commitment, and more examples of extraordinary performing people? I am not suggesting that finals in a national sporting event end in a tie. However, rather than a policy of “top sales person goes to Hawaii,” maybe a more productive system might be “anyone who achieves an ambitious stretch objective, goes to Hawaii.” It is not about highlighting just one on the team, but raising the level of production of the entire team. You may want to give that some thought.

In closing, I find myself a little more reassured about the future when I witness young people like the couple hundred Bee national finalists. They were not children of great privilege, all gifted with a special spelling gene, which made them unique. Rather, they were typical ten – fourteen year olds, from a variety of backgrounds, with the usual hobbies and interests. And they were role models, who clearly demonstrated enormous amounts of commitment, persistence, collaboration and plain old hard work. That’s what made them the successes they already are today. And those are attributes available to anyone, at any age, who is willing to step up and pursue a dream.

And the good news – there were nearly 11 million others just like the finalists, who also chose to deeply challenge themselves and to grow. My hat is off to all of them.


  1. Michael Ray says:


    This was a very insightful and an amazing commentary on a group of individuals who will no doubt grow into adulthood with the understanding that challenges are part of the order of things and that the world does not end because we are not on point at times. I enjoyed your perspective on this and thanks so very much for sharing.


  2. Michael, your comment about ongoing challenges and the world not ending are two more valuable lessons from this event. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jim Franks says:


    Wonderful write-up and insights! Isn’t it great to see young people already so accountable for their own performance? Your insight about rewards for excellence are spot on. How much better to recognize all who beat a stretch goal than to set up competition for one top spot!

    All the best,


    • Amazing what we can learn from some young teens, isn’t it. And there are a number of ways to promote excellent work. We just have to not get stuck on “the way it has always been done.” Take care.

  4. Beth Hecquet says:

    It was great having you at the Bee and I really enjoyed this post. Very good points made that I will take to heart even a little bit more.

    • Your team does fabulous work in making the Bee the remarkable experience it turns out to be. Take a bow, and thank you for the hospitality.

  5. Anita Triggs says:

    Hi Steve – Thanks so much for this! I have a half-day meeting with the team next week, so I forwarded this to all of them with the hope that it will enrich our dialogue during our time together.


  6. Sterling Gross says:

    I have been working with a group of leaders who lead individual teams. Part of me wished that I would have read this before the meeting. Had I of read it may not have gone over like I thought it should. Afterall, adults do not like to be called childish especially when they are being childish.

    It was a critical decision. Business changing. Each leader had one thing on their mind. “My team will win so yours must lose.” I can with sincerity say that the belief “there can be more than one winner” was the furthest thing from almost everyone’s mind.

    Leaders, like children can be self absorbed, insecure, and fearful. And because of this there is a choice to be made by one unlucky soul. Someone must ask say “this isn’t working so let’s see how we can help each other.” The ask only comes when this poor soul is less about him or herself and more about what’s the best for all. This soul, when trusted by others can change the trajectory.

    Finally, a leader spoke up and hushed the room with, “We can’t do this alone, why are we trying.”

    The merry-go-round stopped, everyone in the room got on, and the group went for a great ride. Each team member was winning and having fun doing it. I’m sure some thought they were spinning too fast. Others thought they were spinning to slow. Yet no one said, “Let me off”.

    I have a renewed belief that great leaders are teachable. I also believe that it takes just one, trusted by the team, to be vulnerable and say, “wait”.

    Leadership in action!

  7. Thanks for your real world comments. Most agree that teams of individuals outperform any single individual, but few think about how much “teams of teams” can accomplish. Sounds as if your team leaders decided to consider that notion. Be well, my friend.

  8. Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your insights. That’s a great point about how these young people demonstrated their accountability by how they responded when they didn’t succeed. As you wrote, they could have tried to give an excuse, but instead they took responsibility for the outcome. With that they also showed humility, something that is often missing in the workplace.

    I like your idea of moving from a one winner reward to a system that rewards all those who achieve an ambitious goal. How much more fun it would be for them to celebrate the prize together.

    Best regards,


    • Ahh humility. Effective leaders certainly understand its importance. Too bad, so many others still bet so much on ego. Take care.

  9. Steve,
    Awesome article! I shared this with our TLC participants and had great feedback. The life lessons you highlight are applicable in many arenas. Thanks for a thought provoking read.

    • Thanks for your comments. It is amazing what people of all ages can do, when their minds and hearts are committed to something. And I guess the kids have been so busy learning words, that they have not had time to master the all too common “skills” of blaming and excuse making! Hope things are going well for you.

  10. Brian Jackson says:

    Wonderful comments about a stupendous event, Steve. Many thanks indeed!

    • It is indeed an incredible event, from the great kids on stage to the unbelievable mountain of work behind the stage to make it happen. Take care.

Share Your Thoughts