What Shockingly Successful Sports Teams Can Remind Us About Leadership
Only a missional, team-first culture authentically lived out by leaders who truly value synergy will amplify a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
Why do established organizations fail to actualize their potential? Or better yet, why do underdogs surprise us with success — sometimes even to the feel of miraculous?
There is no better representation of this sentiment than the Miracle 1980 Team USA hockey team. Legendary coach Herb Brooks was bullish on a specific set of players (that were not necessarily the most talented) that would go on to defeat the four-time gold medal defending Soviets and capture the gold medal at Lake Placid.
Long before Jim Collins' Good to Great, Simon Sinek's Start with Why, Angela Duckworth's Grit and Jacko Willink's Extreme Ownership, we had exceptional leaders showing us the path less traveled and what the DNA of success looks like. Moneyball and Miracle are two of my favorite movies for this very reason — the seemingly shocking, if not miraculous success of these organizations.
These sports stories and the authors help inform and remind us that talent, smarts and experience are certainly important, but ingredients like synergy, culture and grit are primary. We see this played out time and time again in our favorite underdog sports stories and if we take a step back, we'll see it in any organization.
Talent and experience are nice-to-haves
Herb Brooks showed us that you "win with people, not with talent," that the key ingredient is "people with a solid value system" and to recruit "from a cross-section of different personalities, talents and styles of play."
Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane showed us something similar in 2002. His $41 million payroll Moneyball team captured the American League record with 20 consecutive wins and boasted an identical regular season winning record (103 wins) as the Yankees' $125 million payroll. The much less talented A's put a unique team together and rallied around a no-frills, team-first strategy of getting on base (which included trading away players without the character or fit to the mission).
Perhaps a lesser-known case study, the Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion NHL franchise came into the league with only the ability to draft unprotected players from current teams. Facing the challenge of not having the most talented players available, their leadership seized the opportunity to hand pick the right players that would fit into their team's mission, culture and system.
During their first year, they went 51-24-7 and lost in the Stanley Cup finals. But from 2018 to 2021, they had winning seasons and trips to the playoffs each year, made two trips to the conference finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
Mission, culture and synergy are must-haves
I've personally tasted success implementing these must-haves launching two successful organizations at two vastly distinct times in my life: one in business not long ago, and the other in sport in my early 20s as a hockey coach (two wildly different scenarios, I know). Rewinding to 2001, I was pursuing my bachelor's degree in bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and officiating youth hockey as a side job. I had played youth, junior and college club hockey, though I had never coached before.
One fateful day, I saw a posting for an inaugural high school program seeking coaches. I interviewed for the varsity head coach position of the newly created Lincoln-Way East Hockey Club, knowing full well how aspirational such a move was. When I was offered the position, I was equally excited and terrified. To my knowledge, I was the youngest varsity head coach in the state — with no coaching experience — and I had to select and coach a roster of players, none of which were seniors, to go up against much more established programs.
I hand-picked players on character first and passed on several players that had more size and experience. Our mission (and hands-in battle cry before each game) was simple: respect. As an inaugural team, our opponents would naturally underestimate us. This was our fuel. We decided collectively that we would be the hardest working, hardest hitting, most annoying team to play against. If we did this, wins would eventually come.
We implemented defensive systems that frustrated more talented teams — we synergized our collective efforts to become something larger than individually skilled players. In our inaugural season, we won our conference championship. By our third season, we had gone from a below-the-radar inaugural program to ranked 26th in the state, capturing two conference championships along the way.
Fast forward nearly 20 years, I was given the opportunity and privilege to build and lead a new organization at my current company Abbott (interestingly, one of Collins' companies). Having my previous coaching experience, along with a myriad of business and life lessons, including the ones in this article, I was bullish about the right players, the right culture and the right mission of our organization.
I hand-picked the right people once again — exemplified by three amazing managers — to set the right culture. Together, our entire group aligned on the why of our organizational mission. Despite immense challenges facing our group in the first year (not least of which launching the group in the pandemic), success inevitably followed.
Align with the mission, sustain with culture, amplify by synergy
For senior leaders and hiring managers, there are some incredible takeaways found in these underdog sports stories.
- Mission, culture and synergy optimize organizational potential. If you are an underdog or small organization, your authentic leadership of living out the purpose-driven mission — and hiring a purpose-driven team that is amplified by synergies of varying perspectives and backgrounds — is the key to becoming larger than you are to compete against the larger market teams. Frankly, you have no choice, at least if you want to reach your highest potential. If you're an established organization, imagine how much higher the boat could rise by implementing these principles.
- Don't be distracted by talent, tenure or credentials. Experience, advanced degrees and the like are secondary to having the right individuals that will catalyze a synergy that wouldn't be there otherwise. As leaders, we need to seek a diversity of views, perspectives and skills that will make the team larger than they are. Always choose the right player — the better fit to the mission, culture and synergy — than the more talented/tenured/experienced player.
- Repeat steps one and two. With the right players and right culture, we need to constantly — and authentically — reinforce our organizational why. Commitment to steps one and two is most loudly voiced by who is hired, fired and promoted.
It takes courage to choose synergy over skill, character over experience, and the right players over the most talented ones. But over time, with the right DNA, an incredible culture is realized — one where the unique contributions of the right players are amplified. What follows is the highest actualization of a team's potential. Perhaps Miracle then was not so miraculous after all, just exceptional leadership.
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