Teamwork WinsJul 29, 2020
The year was 1976. I was minding my own business and about to wind up a year of high school teaching and coaching. Two friends in San Antonio called and pressed me to join them in a run across America. I said no three times, but they eventually wore me down. I decided it sounded fun, I had an opening and it was a unique chance to join a team of friends for 30 days having fun and impact.
So, I jumped on a plane and three days later we ran a lap around the Alamo and headed northeast to Washington, DC … on foot (put that one in your Google map and click the walk route). For 30 days we pounded the pavement toward the nation’s capital with the goal to arrive on July 4, 1976 for the bicentennial celebration.
And even though I felt like this we made it.
On the 1600-mile trip, I learned a little bit about running and a lot about teamwork. I have been watching and advising teams for three decades, and much of what I say about teams started with what I experienced back in 1976.
The difficulty lies not in pulling people together but in taking the most advantage of your team. Alex Pentland has a great blog here with some practical research-based tips on how to flourish on a team.
As for me, I’ve got seven basic principles to remember on the road to teamwork.
- There are many styles of team. Some teams are harmonious and some are contentious. Some are dominated by one or two strong personalities whereas others have smaller personalities that just work well together. Some work fast and are agile while others are slow and more formal.
- A group is not automatically a team. Teams come together and work together for a common purpose. Groups include a bunch of individuals whose individual purposes happen to line up for a season. Team chemistry matters in ways that are hard to measure but is very real.
- Not all teams are high-performing teams. Most sports fans can tell you the year their team had all the talent in the world but just couldn't put it together. The 2003-04 Lakers to name one example. Four future hall of farmers and they collapsed in the Finals. It happens in sports and in business--the world-class team that simply never meets expectations.
- Most teams don’t have staying power. Some teams start strong but finish weak. Others start weak and finish strong. And a few start strong and finish strong. One of the greatest values of a team is to garner collective strength for the long run.
- Performance is the single greatest ingredient of all successful teams. In The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni writes, “Some leaders of teams that don’t regularly succeed will still insist they have a great team because team members care about one another and no one ever leaves the team. A more accurate description of their situation would be to say that mediocre team that enjoys being together and isn’t terribly bothered by failure.” Ouch.
- Every team needs a leader. As I’ve written elsewhere <crosslink to blog here>, there’s a difference between authority and influence, but every team must have someone who charts a course and leads the way. Even the most collaborative culture needs an on-field quarterback.
- The success of any team will be regulated by its weakest link. Alexander the Great said, “Remember upon the conduct of each is the fate of all.” A high-performing team will settle back to the outputs, the pace, and the intelligence of the weakest link, not the strongest member.
So what is the real value of teamwork?
Thirty centuries ago, Solomon, the king of Israel and one of the writers of the Old Testament, wrote about the value of teamwork:
“There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil… Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up. Also, if two lie down together they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:8-12)
The setting was rugged and the assignments were simple compared to the high-tech world we live in today. But a team is a team and the value is evident.
- Teams lead to greater efficiency and productivity.
- Teams allow you to share risk and rewards.
- Teams create innovation, breakthrough, and discovery.
- Teams provide safety, defense, and strength.
We were a bunch of twenty-somethings who weren’t runners tackling a physical and mental challenge. A few of us might have started the run by ourselves but none of us would have finished it by ourselves. Oh, and we did finish.
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