Give Me Some Independent Thinkers


A quick announcement:
  If you’ve been a listener of the Dan Mulhern Show on the Michigan Talk Network, see the news flash below today’s RFL

A universal value for leaders in our times should be this:  continuously work to generate independent thinking among those you lead.  Kids.  Staff.  Parishioners, Students. Bosses.  You name ‘em.  For humans are social beings, and we are so heavily and continuously influenced by perceptions and by the crowd that we need someone to vigilantly remind us to check the data and use our own best judgments.

Let one example suffice.  Beginning about Tuesday the modern day village drummers – the TV and radio news – began to tell us across Michigan that a major blizzard was on its way; “details at 11,” “traffic and weather on the 8’s.”  We tuned in.  The drumbeat continued to grow louder – 8-12 inches, 12-15 inches – predicted the Thursday morning reporters.  Kids were getting excited, as Friday appeared sure to be a glorious snow day.  They were texting and high-fiving, thrilled to hear the snow was going to begin Thursday at and continue all night and most of the morning.  Hold the phone.  Just a reality check here.  At midnight in Lansing it still hadn’t begun to snow.  And this is Michigan after all, which means two things: first, we are decidedly not North Carolina or one of those places where a half-inch of snow leads to mass panic.  We drive in the snow all the time.  And second, we are like North Carolina, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Florida and about every other state I’ve visited or lived in this respect:  the weather changes all the time.  Meteorologists (what do they study meteors?) – are wrong by degrees, at least, all the time.

Well darn it all, they weren’t completely  wrong.  It did snow.  About 4 or 5 inches, I’d say.  We can drive in 5 inches in our sleep.  But nearly every school system in central and lower Michigan closed.  In my view – go ahead, call me a curmudgeon – it wasn’t dangerous roads that closed the schools.  It was the hype and what it generated:  thousands of sure-to-be-hyper kids who would be practically unteachable.  And I imagine no school superintendent wanted to be the one to keep her or his schools open while all the rest were closed.  As a result, millions of student-school hours were lost.  Instead of listening to teachers, they were listening to meteorologist Mike Malarchy and his Dopler 10,000.  Oh yes, and watching advertisements like the one that says, “you will probably be shopping for a thousand dollar flat screen TV this weekend.”  Really?  I will?

If you want good for your people and for those they serve, encourage them to ask questions, challenge assumptions, look at the data, and be half as wary of group-opinion as they are of group leaders.  If you’ve got independent thinkers around you, you’ll have a much better chance to

Lead with your best self!


NEWS FLASH:  On Saturday, February 9th, we will premiere across Michigan “The Winner’s Circle with Dan Mulhern” on the Michigan Talk (radio) Network.  I decided to move to Saturday mornings from my daily evening show, because that show was taking away precious family time.  I had to walk the walk, as I discussed in last week’s RFL on “managing our appetites.”  I am excited about the new show which will be all about “making your work really work for you.”  It will air on Saturday mornings from 7 AM until 9 AM.  I will have great guests in the first hour, and the entire second hour will be devoted to trouble-shooting issues at work with live callers.  For example, what do you do with a micro-managing boss, a manipulative co-worker, or a lazy direct report who your boss won’t let you discipline?  Call in at 888-900-9966 to get advice on a work issue that you can bet others are struggling with as well.  You can also send your workplace challenges to me at  The show will stream as well at our home station

  • I completely resent your comments about the snow day on Friday, and basically what does it have to do with leading? I live in Kalamazoo and while we did get the five inches you spoke of overnight, we also continued through Friday morning with five more inches. I was glad the schools were closed in anticipation of more snow, hooray for Dave Hutton, superintendent of Comstock schools! Thank you

    • Friday morning, from Owosso to Lansing, was one of the most treacherous drives I recall from the last 10+ years of making the commute…at the same time as all the school buses would have been out transporting children. You really shouldn’t have been so quick to broadcast your presumptions, Mr. Mulhern.

      • Phoenix, Chris and Gerald S (below),
        Whew! Funny how the hype hit a nerve with me, and I in turn hit a nerve with you. I wasn’t saying every superintendent was wrong. I am saying that the Weather Channel and others like them thrive on driving eyeballs and ears to their channels, i.e., their advertisers. Dramatic storms do this, and though they can actually have shows devoted to storms of the past, there’s nothing like a real-time storm!!!!
        It’s not evil. But it sure as heck isn’t designed to promote rational decision making. Life is full of forces like this, where group pressures would make us think we should follow. I’m simply saying that people need to be able to factor out the noise and make rational choices. If your “supes” did that, great!
        I suppose the other point about leadership, Chris, is that sometimes leaders definitely have to stand against the tide. The most simple example is that coaches condition their athletes, putting comfort aside for the bigger goal of winning games. Likewise, teachers and schools invite kids to “suck it up” and do homework and come to school on snowy days for the greater goal of a competitive populace, prepared to take on 21st century jobs.
        Does that make any more sense?

    • Dan,
      your comment was right on target. I have been listening to these weather folks and I don’t trust their predictions that completely. I think the comment by Chris missed the point. I don’t think you linked leadership to the hype. You advised don’t be so quick to accept assumptions people make without asking questions and being inquisitive. However, if the latter charactersistic is a leadership attribute then maybe there is a relationship. We have an election for president coming up in November. I hope the voters thouroughly examine what the candidates bring to the process and that they cast their votes based on solid information they have on their choice for president rather than hype and emotion. As far as the snow issue; Get a life! Sixty years ago we had as bad or worse weather and students still made it to school. Kids in the Lake Tahoe California School system have to contend with snow far more often than we do.

  • Dan Independent thinkers for the White House would certainly be welcome. How about those Giants. Booyah to ya. Continue to enjoy your comments.

  • Thank you, Dan, for addressing the issue of school closings in relation to self-reliancy and independent thinking. I like to think of it in terms of the phrase “reactionary thinking.” How much of our “living” is in reaction to something or someone attempting to influence our thinking? Are we paying attention to our thoughts, in relationship to why we move to action? If the ancestor to every action is a thought, then, WOW, who and what are we allowing to determine what are lives look like?

    As Robert Redford says to Merill Streep in the movie “Out of Africa,” “I don’t want to find myself some day at the end of someone else’s life.”

    Your reminder to us leaders, followers and even to those of us who are not regularly “tracking” whether we’re leading or following, is appropo on this eve of Super Tuesday, as many voters across the country will either “react” in the voting booth or rely on their own good sense as to who best they believe will impact them and challenge them to think for themselves.

    As a final plug, the school where my son attends, St. Clare Montefalco Catholic School in Grosse Pointe Park, did not close…which made my wife and I quite pleased!

  • Changing the time of the radio show to preserve family time sounds like the right thing to do. It may also be the more productive thing to do. Check out this month’s Harvard Business Review for the Article “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”. Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy identify everyday behaviors that rob us of energy. One is: “__ I don’t have enough time with my family and loved ones, and when I’m with them, I’m not always really with them.” Check it out.

    P.S. Grosse Pointe Schools were open Friday and on the 2nd of January. Hats off to Superintendant Suzanne Klein and Board Chair Brendan Walsh.

  • Thank you for also sending the message about the snow storm. I feel the local news stations were sensationalizing the perceived storm. Friday morning, one Lansing TV station was showing the “treacherous” road conditions, all the while cars were zooming by in the background. Also on Friday, Charlotte even cancelled a Saturday wrestling meet.

    Sometimes, we all need to take a deep breath, look at the real situation and not just react to the “sky is falling” news reports. Be an independent thinker!

  • Thank you. If you haven’t, go see Bowling for Columbine which illustrates the role media is playing in growing a fearful, risk averse nation — exactly the kind of approach that keeps Michigan stuck in a quagmire.

  • I agree that the media plays a far-too-big role in creating the hysteria of a snowstorm. As an educator, I am distressed with the amount of time missed due to weather issues. Unfortunately I am in a minority with my beliefs. Continue to press forward with your emphasis on independent thinkers.

    …as I said, I feel I made the correct recommendation. It was my opinion that road conditions at the time; although not good, did not warrant shutting down schools. Seeing the radar that was tracking the storm furthered my confidence that we were not going to get hit as the media had suggested. I believe the folks on the west side “pulled the trigger” due to the immediate conditions combined with the media hype the prior 18 hours or so. If road conditions by noon were an indicator, very few districts should have shut down. Further, I don’t base my recommendation solely on what others are doing. The larger districts in Macomb communicate amongst ourselves and together try to make the best recommendation we can for our individual districts.

    In my many years of having to be in a position to make a recommendation relative to a snow day I have been questioned, ridiculed, chastised, 2nd guessed and in many cases; severely, verbally abused. Some of the “jibes” are good-natured and meant in fun, while at times it has gotten quite personal; to the point that my wife (an employee) and children get harassed. I guess what puzzles me is that many school employees feel it is their God-given right to have a day off when a few snow flakes fly.

    The measure that we having to make this recommendation use, has lessened over the years. Think about your childhood and how often you went to school in conditions that were many times worse than Friday. You see, I truly feel that the best place for children to be on a scheduled school day is in the classroom. Now, I realize I am speaking as a “lay person” when I say that it seems to me that Friday offered an opportunity to the professional staff to be creative and do some instruction that they otherwise may not have time. I am sure there were students in classrooms on Friday that need additional instruction that conditions would have made possible.

    In other words, although challenging; I am certain that Friday could have been a productive day, not wasted on those who did come to class. Everyone who came to work on Friday was paid for doing what they choose to do for a living; so they were where they were supposed to be!

  • Predicting snow fall is very difficult. We live in an area where 50% of the roads are gravel and 50% of the roads are dirt. Buses have a difficult time on the dirt roads because the county will only shovel or sweep the gravel roads. Plus, if a bus was stuck on the dirt road in the bitter cold weather that we were experiencing, the students would have to be on the bus for an hour or two before help would come. Stuck on the bus in warm weather is one thing but in the bitter cold weather it could prove lethal.

  • I don’t know where your independent thinkers were but our school district did have school and it was one of the worst driving days. Yes we only got a few inches of snow but our county hadn’t plowed out the five inches we had gotten each day since Tuesday. It was really piling up and my car was bottoming out until I got to a state maintained road. I was ever so happy they did plow at some point but was now just ice. Welcome to Michigan the land with high taxes and no funds to provide public services. I would love independent thinkers who could come up with some ways to provide a decent budget so our cities, schools, counties and others could plan their budgets and not live in a continual crunch of what the state will cut next.

  • Mr. Mulhern, your take on this is over-simplified. Yes, you and I can drive five in 5 inches of now in our sleep, but inexperienced high school drivers cannot. And taking the bus is not an option for many reasons; leaving during the day to attend dual enrollment classes at LCC or Olivet is one reason. And believe it or not, many children walk to school – which the Governor promotes – and sidewalks are not cleared, making walking hazardous and sometimes forcing children to walk in the street. School administrators have to take into account the safety of ALL those who make their way to school, not just those of us who can drive in 5 inches of snow in our sleep.

  • Dan,
    The snow day example doesn’t fit. Speaking as one who makes that decision, sometimes administration decides to call off school due to the conditions that affect the staff. They may travel from different areas and have ore problems with the commute than the school population. Most principals I know decide on the side of caution. Sometimes parking lots don’t get cleared in time. A tiny amount of slush and ice on parking lot can cause cars and busses to slip and slide. It has little to do with the actual amount of snowfall on the ground. I witnessed a parked car slide into a student walking into a school builing. There was just enough slush combined with a slight grade on the school parking lot for this to happen. We only had a few inches of snow. Luckily no one was seriously hurt.

  • Mr. Mulhern,

    I appreciate the message you delivered today. On the surface you have touched on an obviously sensitive issue that calls into judgment the people who predict the weather and those that have to make the decisions to change the course of the day based on those predictions. But your message to me is not about criticizing these people.

    Your message speaks to me that we need to evaluate and think for ourselves in our every day lives, not to be tempted by following blindly. It makes me think about how I should stop to consider my options before I act. It has nothing to do with the snow.

    Unfortunately I think the propensity to follow without independent thought is burned into our psyche, if you will, since childhood. I am thinking “always do what the adults tell you” is the cause. Of course, the effect is generally positive because we are presumably doing the right thing by doing what we are told. It is just hard to break out of that mold later as we face situations in our lives where it is sometimes easier to do exactly that.

    Learning to lead with my best self,

    John Arenz

  • You totally missed the boat a few writes ago when you insulted superintendents by insinuating that they were incompetent when it came to cancelling school. On the day in question that you belittled one particular superintendent, I ventured out toward school, not aware that we had been cancelled. I only live one mile from work, and I was just about unable to get there! My front-wheel drive van went sideways down the icy road most of the way. I am lucky I was able to get her turned around and back home safely. My children are young adults now, but if they were small children in school, there would be no way that I would have risked sending them out to even wait for the bus. I can’t imagine what trouble the bus would have had merely moving down the ice-covered road, let alone making all of the stops and starts. From your comments it is clear that you have no idea what is done before a decision to cancel school is made. One of our administrators gets out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and takes a drive throughout our district. He especially travels on the back roads of our community. Once he determines the condition of the roads, he and the superintendent make a decision. I don’t think this duty is taken lightly, and their first priority is to keep school open. If you think they should risk the health and well-being of hundreds of students, especially elementary students, by keeping school open regardless of treacherous road conditions, I think it is high time that you return to school so you can learn a thing or two.

    It is obvious that you took a swing at public schools despite your ignorance of school cancellation procedures. I am totally confident in my superintendent’s ability to make such a call, and as a public school teacher, I do not appreciate your comments. I hope no one follows your lead on this one!

    • Geez anonymous,
      You’re pretty hot on this one. There is a pretty healthy discussion above; my guess is that you only read RFL, because the conversation modulates some of what I said. But I sure do respect the seriousness of what supes and transportation directors do. I also think the rural situations are quite different than some of our more urban settings.
      I also feel bad that you characterize me as some enemy of public education. I wonder if that isn’t a byproduct of a world that frequently draws sides – you’re with education or against it. I’m for it, but I want it to act smart. I’m “for” my church, but I want to play a role to make it be the best church. I’m “for” me, but I do some dumb thing sometimes (as you point out). So there is this atmospher of for/against. We blame institutions, including public schools. Funny thing is, I was actually “taking a swing” at the media – another favorite institution we love to hate. You say you “hope no one follows [Mulhern’s] lead on this one.” That seems as crazy as me saying “I hope no one follows Anonymous’ lead on this one.” I wasn’t saying “open every school no matter the risk” any more than I suspect you think EVERY superintendent made the right judgment call in closing school. I’m just saying: THINK and encourage independence.
      In that spirit, I’m glad you wrote and hope you’ll write again!

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