We’ve all watched those teams who frequently fail to deliver despite being stacked with talent, flush with resources support and opportunity. ‘The champion team always beats the team of champions’, is a cliché’ proven time and time again in sport, particularly during the playoffs.
Commentators often talk about chemistry, cohesion and camaraderie as if it is some magical mixture that some teams just have, and others don’t. The truth is, champion teams and their leaders work just as hard on synergy as they do on strategy.
In the last post, we saw why high performance lead to low success, and how high purpose cultures are superior. In this article we will look at how purpose driven cultures emerge in sport. Leaders who understand and harness this process inspire talented people to work together while doing their life’s best work.
When Talent Transforms Into Team
During the 1974-75 tour of Australia, the Aussies embarrassed The West Indies cricket team. Fast bowlers Geoff Marsh and Dennis Lillie wreaked havoc with bouncing, bodyline balls at speeds never before seen in cricket. After the series, West Indies captain Clive Woodward vowed to fight fire with fire and scoured the Caribbean for fast bowlers who could physically intimidate batsman.
Woodward assembled an extremely talented team of cricketers and added much needed firepower in fast bowlers Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Andy Roberts. The ‘Windies’ were recognised as a talented but laconic group of individuals who as a team were inconsistent but entertaining to watch. The cricket world dubbed them ‘calypso cricketers’.
During a television interview promoting the West Indies upcoming 1976 tour of England, captain Tony Greig sneered:
‘You must remember, these guys if they get on top are magnificent cricketers, but if they are down they grovel, and I intend with the help of Closey and a few others to make them grovel’
The timing of this comment was particularly significant. Social constructs surrounding racism were crumbling. People who had emigrated to the UK from the Caribbean felt particularly victimized and saw the success of their cricket team as one of the few means regain pride and status.
Greig’s ill advised ‘grovel’ comment incited the West Indies cricketers to come together as a team. They vowed to reclaim respect for their people and prove themselves more than entertainers. In the documentary ‘Fire in Babylon’ Viv Richards described the transformation within the group:
‘It stepped beyond the sport, where there was a whole lot of things that needed defending, rather than the cricket ball itself’
The 1976 West Indies team that toured England won all three test matches against Tony Greig and his friends. Three years later they returned to Australia and smashed the worlds best team on home soil. From there, the Windies only got better, history remembers them as one of the most dominant sides to compete on the world stage.
People come together when they have a cause to believe in, adversity can be a powerful unifying force, however teams need not wait for disaster or injustice to come together, strive for greatness and fulfil their potential.
How Core Ideology Incites Teams
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In the landmark book ‘Built to Last’ Jim Collins popularised the concept of the ‘core ideology’. Collins credited ideology as one of the major reasons why some organisations consistently outperform the market despite no measurable advantages in resources, timing or information.
An ideology is a recognised, formalised set of beliefs common to a person or group. In the best organisations, an ideology clearly defines:
What we stand for
How we stand up
What we are working toward
A clear and compelling core ideology focuses people toward a shared purpose, sets the tone for preferred behaviours, and guides all efforts actions and decisions toward creating a future that doesn’t yet exist, but is clearly visible to all.
Crafting a core ideology is not really new in sport. At some point most teams attempt to define their ‘culture’, however it has become more and more common to outsource or dismiss this process. Having seen or experienced ‘culture setting’ done poorly and not lived, many have become sceptical or indifferent about this process.
When words go up on the wall and nobody takes notice, it can be easy to shelve the practice completely or outsource it to ‘experts’ (whom often also fail) However, when done well, a clear and compelling ideology can rally a group of individuals and transform them into a cohesive, committed team.
A well-crafted core ideology should work just like the ‘grovel comment’ did for the West Indies. Inciting teams to act, and inspiring people to dream and believe. There are three key components to a core ideology: Core Purpose, Core Values, and Core Objective.
Core Purpose (what we stand for)
Most rational people would laugh if you told them that if they worked tirelessly for years, physically exerting themselves and sacrificing many of life’s little pleasures, they may get to hold a silver cup for a couple of minutes. Without the meaning we give it, the silver cup that signifies a championship victory is just a piece of metal.
Teams who believe their purpose is to ‘win the championship’ confuse purpose with objective (more on this later), an important objective no doubt, but an objective nonetheless. No one grows up dreaming of being of being handed a silver cup, until they begin to associate other important things to that cup. Understanding those associations is key to discovering a team’s core purpose. The question that can unlock a team’s purpose is: ‘why do we want to win a championship?’
In business, often the founders set the purpose, but in sport the purpose needs to be discovered (and at times rediscovered) by the players, then aligned with the wider organisation through its leaders. It is the players who toil, train and put their bodies on the line week in and week out. If we want athletes to exert themselves for more than money, status or fame, then we need to engage more than the pleasure centres in their brain. We need to engage their hearts and their minds.
In 2014 The NSW waratahs won the super rugby title after years of frustrating fans with their potential. The ‘Tahs’ were a talented team and exciting in attack, yet inconsistent, often lacking cohesion and intent in defence. Realising this, the team’s coach Michael Chieka worked to discover and define a common core purpose (make our families proud), he then linked it to a clear strategy (master defence) that he believed to be crucial in order for the team to achieve its core objective (win the Super Rugby Championship).
‘Defend for them’ was the slogan that Chieka had plastered all over the walls, and visible at all times. It was this clever tool that reminded the team of their purpose and kept them focused on mastering the one thing that he believed held the key to their ultimate success. Tiny words were lumped together to form the giant letters on the posters. The words were the names of each family member for every player on the team.
Since each team contains its own unique history, personalities, and narratives, the core purpose should be different for each team. For the Waratahs, it was their families; for the Windies it was to reclaim respect and honour for black people. Performance follows purpose because without purpose there is no passion, and without passion there is no persistence. When passion and persistence are lacking, preparation and practice soon follow suit.
Core Values (How we stand up)
Values define how the group intends to conduct themselves. They are a powerful tool for shaping behaviour, decisions and interactions. A well thought out set of values can dramatically impact a group’s cohesion, while also combatting conflict, confusion and dissension.
An effective set of values should be clear and concise, telling people what to do (or not do) using language that is relevant to the group. Since values are to be upheld by the players, they should be set by the players. Michael Holding pointed to the West Indies values when he explained how the new Windies team went about reclaiming respect for their people:
‘We’re not going to be the happy go lucky cricketers only here to entertain, were going to entertain by this high skill, and whatever it takes to win within the rules of the game, were going to do it to win’
Understanding the context within which these comments were made, we can infer the core values the West Indies team lived by on their way to becoming World Champions, such as…
- Play with pride and passion.
- Entertain and execute with flair.
- Be fair, but ruthless, take no prisoners.
Authors of ‘Scaling Up Excellence’ Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao have consulted for hundreds of organisations to hep them define, spread and live their ideology. They explain that values lose their meaning when leaders try to boil it down into one all encompassing word like ‘Integrity’. Values are not virtues described using nouns, they should be actions described using verbs.
This distinction is important. Getting values wrong only inspires indifference and scepticism. Values must resonate with the people doing the doing, when values hit the mark the players should think to themselves ‘that is what I have always felt deep down, though not been able to say’. Values fail when they are abstract, irrelevant and not articulated using language common to the group.
Core Objective (what we’re working toward)
A good core objective encourages people to envision how the future they are striving to create might look, and also to think practically and strategically. The clearer this vision, the more inspiring and effective the objective. When Nelson Mandela was elected president, he realised that if the Springboks could win the Rugby World Cup on home soil in South Africa, the team once seen as a symbol of white supremacy could unite a nation still seething with racial unrest.
Mandela became actively involved in the Springboks preparation for the 1995 Rugby World Cup. He worked to share with the team how important his vision for a Rugby World Cup Victory was, and he did it by showing them how divided South Africa really was. The Springboks held training camps and clinics all over the country, immersing themselves in the economic and sociocultural realities of their country and its culture.
In effect, Mandela showed the Springboks they had an opportunity to change the fate of their country. He didn’t tell them, he showed them, and when they claimed this core purpose as their own, it was easy to see the core objective. Winning the world cup on home soil would be the most powerful contribution the Springboks could make to unite their country.
As we saw earlier, it is quite common to mistake core objective for core purpose, and usually happens when leaders are convinced that the team’s purpose is to win a championship. For some people, the two can be quite difficult to separate, but getting it right is essential. Without a purpose the team stands for nothing and has no ‘brand’, and without a clear and compelling objective it will lack consistency, system and strategy.
Core purpose appeals to the heart, and core objective appeals to the mind. Core purpose is about passion. Core objective is about proof. Success as it relates to core purpose is subjective. Success as it relates to the core objective is well… objective. Purpose and objective are the yin and yang of human motivation, none is more important than the other, but together they can be a powerful guiding force for teams and their leaders.
Teams who focus on talent, systems and strategy, and assume synergy will naturally occur as a by-product of victory are putting the cart before the horse. Taking the time to discover and craft a compelling ideology is not a task to be tolerated or delegated, but an essential step to generating the kind of commitment, cohesion and passion that is essential for sustained success.
Of course, when it comes to ideology it is not as simple as just finding it, creating it and formalising it. The high purpose team must live it. The next two articles in this series will describe the strategies high purpose organisations use to ensure they live their ideology each and every day. Stay tuned.