How many times have you heard the phrase “If I could just clone (insert exemplary team member’s name), this would be a great credit union!”? Perhaps you’ve said those words yourself. Maybe you’ve even thought that about yourself. My latest read debunked the popular theory that there is only one type of “good” employee or leader.
After starting this year with six consecutive books on leadership and professional culture, our YMC book club decided it was time to read something for fun. I can’t recall who recommended The Boys in the Boat to me, but the story of nine Americans’ quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics turned out to be more than just a pleasure read. It was an engaging account with powerful leadership lessons woven throughout all the history and drama.
Early in the story, famed racing shell builder, George Pocock, noted that few rowing coaches would clone even their best rower. “Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types,” Pocock observed. “One rower’s arms might be might be longer than another’s, but the latter might have a stronger back than the former,” he continued. “Neither is necessarily better or a more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat.”
How often do you glorify the contributions, work style, or personality type of one employee or volunteer? Whenever that happens, there’s a good chance you’re celebrating qualities that reflect your work style or personality type. At YMC, we use DISC personality profiles to learn about our fellow team members. We also utilize these profiles with each of our clients. By understanding how our teammates and clients communicate or approach projects, we’re better able to lean in and develop well-balanced working relationships.
For example, one of our team members, who shall remain nameless (ahem…me), tends to tackle projects by charging ahead like a bull in a china shop. They tear through projects and focus on results while overlooking many details that are critical to the project’s success. By bringing more detail-oriented people onto the team, they surround themselves with others who slow down enough to ask the right questions. Their attention to detail helps plug the holes in the plan, which enables the team to achieve a much better outcome.
In instances like this, some folks would be annoyed by others who ask questions. They might think the questioners just don’t understand. At the same time, the person asking the questions might be annoyed by the “bull in a china shop” and wonder why they haven’t thought the project through. But when you give each team member a chance to contribute and use their strengths, you create a synergy that helps your group beat the odds and win the gold, just like the “Boys in the Boat” did in 1936.
While leaning into each other’s strengths is essential, it’s important to remember that high performing teams also cultivate healthy relationships rooted in trust. It wasn’t just the physical abilities of the 1936 Olympic rowing team that earned them the gold. They succeeded because they learned to trust each other—something that didn’t come naturally to one of the crew.
“Nothing was more frightening than having to depend on others,” shared Joe Rantz, a member of the storied team. Rantz’s reluctance to depend on others was understandable. His mother died when he was young, and he was shipped off to live with relatives thousands of miles away. When he was finally sent back home to be with his father and new step-mother, his step-mother gave an ultimatum: “It’s me or him.” Joe’s father chose his new wife over his son, and Joe was left to fend for himself. “People let you down. People leave you behind,” Rantz recalled. “Depending on people, trusting them—it’s what gets you hurt.” If Joe hadn’t overcome those trust issues and found a way to harmonize with his teammates, the team would have struggled to win a race, let alone a gold medal.
Earlier this year, our book club read Dennis McIntee’s Drama Free Teams and learned that unless a team’s trust battery is full, they will never become a high performing team. It’s virtually impossible to function effectively if there is no trust among team members. It’s difficult to focus on your part of the project if you’re constantly worried that others won’t follow through. Persistent uncertainty undercuts unity and leads to major failure.
What’s holding your team back from achieving great things? Is it an ego that keeps saying, “My way is better?” Is it lack of understanding and empathy for teammates? Maybe it’s lack of accountability for some team members, which leads to a lack of trust among others. Perhaps it’s lack of vision. If you’re mired in day-to-day tasks without a specific goal in mind, it’s hard to see the need for change.
Whatever your team’s challenges may be, you can overcome them—just like the “boys in the boat” did. They were the underdogs who faced countless obstacles. But when they combined their passion with hard work, positive attitudes, and mutual trust, they overcame incredible odds to win Olympic gold. By following their example and learning to trust one another, your team can accomplish great things as well.
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t… you’re right.” That statement is as true to today as when Mr. Ford first coined the phrase. Take a look at the goals you’ve set for 2019. Think ahead to those you will set for 2020. Do you think you can achieve them or not? Either way, you’re right.