How Do You Build a Championship Team?

Leaders who build a culture of empathy thrive with their teams in any situation

learn more about Sharat Sharma

By Sharat Sharma


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Ask any CEO or a corporate leader, "Do you want to be part of a CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM?" The most obvious answer you will hear is "yes". The next pertinent questions then are how do we define a Championship Team? Is it the team that's focused on winning always or is it the team that believes in playing together and it does not really matter whether it wins or it loses? What does it take to build and be part of a Championship Team?

Every time We discuss building a Championship Team, the example that we refer to is the epic cricket match played between Australia and South Africa on March 12, 2006. This match is often referred to as the greatest match ever played in the history of cricket.

Clearly, the match was not for the faint-hearted. While batting first, Australian team scored 434. No one ever thought South Africans had any chance of chasing down this record score.

Boucher in his autobiography Bouch: Through My Eyes writes about what happened in the dressing room post-Australian innings. He quotes one of the incidents about Jacques Kallis. When the entire team was nervous and worried Kallis got up and said, "OK, guys, I think the bowlers have done their job. Now it's up to the batsmen. They're 15 runs short; this is a 450-wicket. Suddenly there was a lot of laughter and plenty of swearing, but at least it wasn't bottled up inside. We had nothing to lose. What the hell — let's give it a go. Before that moment, I don't believe anybody would have even talked about trying to win. It seemed too ridiculous."

We all know what happened after this dressing room conversation. In the nail-biting finish, South Africa created a history by chasing down the record score.

That's exactly how a championship Team Plays.

They were Fearless, Strong, Accountable, Supportive and most importantly empathetic towards each member of the team.

Deconstructing this match and the mindset reveals how Championship teams perform. How they up their game during the testing times.

The truth is strategies and plans don't work always. The best of the strategies go wrong and all plans can fail. When we are too focused on strategies and plans and if they fail, we lose hope and succumb to the pressure. If not strategies, what makes a team succeed? What makes a team face any situation ferociously?

There are the three elements that act as the pillar of every Championship Team. Accountability, courage and empathy, for the ease of memorizing, let's use the acronym A.C.E.


The first pillar to build any championship team is to build a culture of accountability. The truth about accountability is it encourages qualities of mutual trust, respect, curiosity, and learning among the team members. This ensures that the team plays the game with cohesion and thrive in every situation.

A research by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) reveals that a culture of accountability increases the probability of achieving a goal by 95%.

In the absence of an accountability culture, you end up creating a default culture of blame. It's a default culture because people slip into survival mode where self-interest becomes more important than the group interest. Such a culture is self-sabotaging. In a culture of blame, team members don't trust each other. They disrespect opposing views, give excuses, shy away from shouldering responsibility, are afraid of taking risks, and are not open to new learning. The cost of such a culture can be massive and irreversible.

During the Australia and South Africa match, each player of the South-African team clearly demonstrated high levels of Accountability. They did not blame or criticize the fellow bowlers or any team members for not playing their game well. That's how Champions play.

In organizations, to build the culture of accountability, leaders must promote the language of accountability at all 3 levels which is Individual, Team and Organizational Level. It's important that we bind the team towards organizations vision and its core values. When the team is aligned towards the vision and demonstrates high levels of accountability, it is bound to emerge as CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM.


Tim Gallwey, creator of The Inner Game talks about "performance equation". He simply stated: PERFORMANCE = POTENTIAL – INTERFERENCE.

This simple equation sums-up how a team's performance can be enhanced. In a workplace, leaders usually focus on improving performance and miss out on eliminating the interference. A CHAMPIONSHIP team emerges when interference in the form of limiting beliefs, mental blocks, fear, self-doubt, are eliminated and the potential of the team is unleashed. These interferences minimize the true potential of the team.

It takes COURAGE to handle all the interference that hinders the performance. Courage is when you take action in spite of fear, judgements and doubts. A leader must encourage and build the culture of courage. Courage lets you free and allows you to make bold and unpopular decisions. It allows you to achieve what most consider impossible. Courage is the reason why most organizations thrive and innovate.

When the South African team came out to chase the herculean score of 434, it looked like an impossible task. This was never done in the history, it would have been easy to allow self-doubt, fear and limited beliefs to let you down. But the team did not let its performance get side-tracked because of any interference.

Every CHAMPIONSHIP team wins their game in their mind much before they win it in the field. They handle all the interference much before they reveal their potential. Such an act can only thrive in a culture where leaders promote courage as an important virtue.


The third and the most important pillar of building a Championship team is the ability to demonstrate empathy towards fellow team members. Empathy is one's ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of other team members. It is the ability to be flexible in viewing things from other's perspective and not limit them to one's own perspectives.

Michael, author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership in his book states, "With empathy, complex problems become more understandable, teams become more effective, and companies become more nimble."

Laughter is one of the greatest ways to demonstrate empathy. During the Australia and South Africa match, after the first innings in the dressing room, Kallis made a comment that brought everyone down to laughter. He knew everyone was stressed out and had given up. He used the most powerful tool of laughter to connect with everyone. He broke the ice and eased out the situation. It then created space for everyone to think as a team. That's what empathy can do. It can win you championships.

Leaders who build a culture of empathy thrive with their teams in any situation. They find humour in the toughest situation and sail through the tough situations with ease. While many argue empathy cannot be taught, the fact is, it's a natural instinct that we are born with. A leader must facilitate the process of winning by creating a culture of empathy.

Leaders who promote the culture of Accountability, Courage & Empathy in their teams emerge as a CHAMPIONSHIP team and accelerate their performance to new heights.

Sharat Sharma

Co-founder, IAM Human Capital Consulting

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