By: John Grinnell

Frustrated, former East Carolina head football coach Pat Dye asked one of my teammates during our 1975 season: “I just can’t figure it out…how could we lose our first three games with the talent we have this year?” Wilbur didn’t know either, but he told Coach Dye that he and “his friends” would do whatever it took to turn the team around. In that moment, Coach Dye told me, he knew what was wrong. We weren’t a football “team,” but rather an amalgamation of four or five smaller teams. The next day he pulled the whole team together for a meeting.

Dye stood in front of us, looking at our anxious faces, and he said only a few words. He told us we were not a team; he said if you want to win football games don’t leave this room until you are a team. He and the rest of the coaching staff, managers and trainers left the room. What took place next is a little sketchy in my mind, but I remember leaving being committed to becoming a team.

Grinnell Leadership

The following week we played the Citadel in Charleston. That year they had a formidable defensive team with an all American middle linebacker. We beat them 3-0 in what I had always told others, and confirmed 18 years later over lunch in Auburn, Alabama with Coach Dye, was the most intense and hardest hitting football game I had ever played. The team finished out the season with unexpected wins over UNC and Virginia. We went on to win 14 more games and the Conference Championship in 1976. One-Team is powerful.

Standing on the court following their National Championship win in 2005, Coach Roy Williams during his first interview turned to the camera and made a statement that the North Carolina “TEAM” won the national championship. Many of us knew exactly what he meant, having watched him throughout the season deftly shape his team into One-Team.

In 2003, the Super Bowl between the Panthers and the Patriots was another illustration of what I call One- Team. If you remember there were no “stars that stuck out” on either team, yet there were many stars. The level of play was so high that there wasn’t room for being anything other than One-Team. This was evidenced as the teams were so evenly matched, the score so close and play so unusually exciting for a Super Bowl. The talented players who overuse “star behavior,” as well as the not-committed, are usually dealt with quickly during the regular season by teammates and the coaching staff of both teams. One-Team building is not “touchy-feely.” It is responsible leadership.

Following most games, when players from both teams are being interviewed, you may have noticed that they don’t talk about themselves very much. Instead they talk about their teammates. Clearly, they aren’t being “politically correct” or acting “humble pie” as many do. Super Bowl winners aren’t faking it.

Members of One-Team know it. They are acutely aware of their “vulnerability to their teammate’s performance.” They are strong and responsible enough to care about their performance for their teammate’s sake because they acknowledge interdependence. They “lean out” knowing that their teammate’s performance will be there to hold them up. It is no wonder they speak about each other’s play and not their own.

The Personal Challenge of One-Team

Within the personality of individually talented teammates, there are strong forces that work against the practice of One-Team. The ego part of the human personality is in large part designed to protect our idealized view of ourselves, our self-image. Sports stars, senior executives, deans of universities, small business owners, project managers and coaches wouldn’t have achieved what they have if they didn’t have talent and a strong, idealized self-image, or what we refer to as “ego strength.”

Grinnell Leadership

As the control panel of behavior, ego is a “personality mechanism” that continually looks for threats and opportunities to support one’s “idealized self-image” in the surrounding social environment. For this reason, the rather humble, or not so humble, star basketball player is unable to pass the ball to an open teammate. The confidence they feel is a good thing, but not at the expense of the additional risk incurred as the open player with a clearly less risky shot is not recognized. A three-point shooter’s fear of failure is no different in a clutch situation. Similarly, the over-responsible and controlling superintendent, executive or assistant coach feels they can’t share information or resources with team members because they equate it as a loss of control, and thereby feel limited in their ability to manage failure and their idealized selfimage. They don’t trust the One-Team. They don’t like to feel vulnerable.

Orchestration of a football team with eleven offensive and defensive players led by seven to ten coaches with hundreds of optional plays is mind-boggling. Yet after coaching in business, industry and various agencies for over twenty years, I realize that these organizations are equally complex with more significant consequences. How many really good “team builders” do we find at the top of our corporate, agency or university ranks? How many One-Team players do we find in our Executive leadership teams?

Serving the “Mission & Purpose” and not Ego

One-Team performs best with talent and strong ego strength. Yet it also requires leaders grounded with decisions and actions that are beyond their own needs and areas of responsibility. Often I will hear intelligent people arguing to the contrary. They usually say things like: “My system works. We are at the top in our market so why should I change?” or “My industry is this way, and this is the only way our best people can work.” Another is: “Academic freedom requires that I not align our people too much.” If you feel this way, you probably shouldn’t try to change too quickly. However, appreciate that this is a short-term view of motivation that ignores the fact that competition between units and individuals of a unified system is suboptimal at game time. Who are you competing with anyway? How good can you be? Are you different or are you just like everyone else you compete with?

One-Team is both horizontal between people and units, out to the customer, and vertical as it cascades down through the chain of command. Underperformance of organizations is always rooted in suboptimal communication through these two channels, resulting in poor decision making, coordination and execution. I find executive teams, managers, supervisors or departments aren’t always “walking the talk” of open communication and mutually supportive leadership. Parochial agendas or inordinately deferential behaviors are hurting overall communication and performance. As a sports example, coaches who state openly, “Football is won and lost on defense,” may be maximizing their defensive unit’s motivation, yet unaware of how their attitude and words are possibly reducing the confidence of the offensive part of their team.

Is the wide receiver “doing their dance” in the end zone following a superb catch recognizing the great block by the offensive center that allowed the quarterback an extra .01 of a second to make the great throw? Most likely not. All of this is akin to kicking your own foot over and over and complaining bitterly about it when you lose! We do it all the time on sports teams and within other types of human organizations.

Sales representatives that build relationships but have a hard time cross selling or sharing relationships with customer service departments are not playing One-Team. In most cases their ego doesn’t trust the integrity or performance of others. They always have well-worn rationalizations for their decision not to do so. An internal operations group which doesn’t feel pressure to act with quality or urgency upon the sales force’s requests is most often not playing One-Team, either due to cultural forces, or because their immediate unit’s leadership is not walking the One-Team walk. Too often, matrix organizations sub-optimize by not meeting quality or competitive timeframes, and this can usually be traced to having trouble with One-Team inside their company. Large projects and contracts requiring coordination of multiple companies, cultures and systems is another vivid example when people resort to “contract language” and unnecessary “survival-like” legal tactics… and, by doing so, slow budget execution so the schedule is blown and the lawyer makes more money than anyone else. These “good people with old habits” don’t know any better; they have lost hope and some have become cynical, are innocently faking it, or honestly espouse One-Team, but are unaware of how their behavior demonstrates the opposite.

To really trust another executive, especially if you climb the corporate, agency or sports team ranks with gamesmanship and politics, can be a daunting challenge. Without the strong vision for One-Team and the stomach to see it through, most CEOs, small business owners, project and program executives, chancellors or head coaches will not reap its rewards. This is likely the Senior Executive’s most challenging role when you consider all the variation in talent levels. Their responsibility is to assure that the talent, knowledge, motivation and mutual support are in place so teammates can “lean out” with each other into One-Team performance. To lead people to function with a strong “I” but not at the expense of the unified performance we call “we” is not an easy task and can take years to build.

What is required to move in the direction of One-Team? First, dissatisfaction with the status quo and then a desire to change will get the ball moving toward the goal line of One-Team. At that point, the following seven recommendations will help you and your executive team, coaching staff or department heads achieve greater performance.

Building One-Team

  • Make sure your playbook, roles, strategy, implementation plans and business fundamentals are solid enough and communicated well for people to understand and then be accountable for.
  • The most senior leader must commit to a vision of being One-Team. This may require them to admit to their past failures and possible blind spots with a commitment to really change their behavior and the discipline to stay the course over time that the outcome can be achieved.
  • Remember that One-Team is not always comfortable. The leadership team must be able to openly share truth and look at the “brutal facts” without political repercussion. Accurate, timely and useful discussion, even when controversial, must be supported. An example of this is giving immediate and useful feedback when a “good person with an old habit” is failing to comply with the new One-Team vision.
  • There must be a commitment by the executive management or coaching staff to focus on their role as leaders of their own unit’s goals, but always with the vision of the “greater good” of the organization, its goals and the community that supports all. Remember that One-Team is vertical and horizontal teamwork.
  • Examine your leadership practices. Most executives and coaches lead the way they were led, which is likely sub-optimal in some ways. Build a common language and model of human leadership among your managers, coaches, supervisors so you can identify and talk about more subtle aspects of team behavioral patterns.
  • Share this article. Discuss openly with your coaching staff or leadership team about the current state of your organization and where it needs to be. Forgive past behavior. It’s a new day, move on, but communicate your expectations from this point forward.
  • Consult a leadership professional to facilitate your team with integrity and perspective to achieve optimal potential. One-Team requires virtue and self-awareness, as defensive ego competition is our human automatic default. Essential vulnerability and the trust required by One-Team is an opportunity for people to step up and demonstrate greater responsibility for their own behavior.