It’s all true, of course – the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts – but we hear less about the important part. How to get there. How to instil real teamwork in the business environment. How to lead effectively.
The American five-star General McCarthur hit the nail on the head during World War Two, telling a young commando there was “no such thing as a bad team, just bad leaders” and identified the central theme of leadership – the ability to inspire a group and give it the impetus it needs to reach its full potential.
Now, traditionally the military is the first place we look for insight into leadership. That’s understandable, but those qualities are most readily on display, and maybe easier to relate to in professional sport, an environment often under intense media scrutiny and rife with big individual egos.
Looking across the pond again, we can learn a great deal from American Football. For Vince Lombardi, arguably the most famous name in the sport having led the Green Bay Packers to five Super Bowls in seven years in the 1960s, leadership flowed from self-discovery.
Lombardi famously once said that “only by knowing yourself — your principles and values – can you hope to become an effective leader” and argued that understanding ourselves allows us to fill out our own characters and build the integrity we need to inspire others.
His approach served as keystone to the Packers’ unprecedented success and earned him an unimpeachable reputation in the US and throughout the world of sport.
Bill Walsh, the legendary coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls, often also spoke about character as being the backbone of any team. Knowing his roster of players wouldn’t get anywhere without the requisite character, he took it upon himself to instil the values he saw as crucial in the team achieving its ends.
Appointed 49ers coach in 1979, Walsh set about a structured programme through which he and his staff relentlessly reinforced the values of pride, mutual respect, commitment, improvement, loyalty and, above all else, placing the wellbeing of the team ahead of individual considerations.
Within two years, the 49ers were transformed and, no longer the worst team in the NFL, stormed to the 1981 Super Bowl. By emphasising a strong set of core values, he had laid the foundations for a further two titles and spawned a dynasty that produced some of the most respected coaches
American Football has ever seen
Back in Blighty, we’re taken much more by an altogether different, but equally informative version of football. I was lucky enough to work with Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ at the height of their success and saw first-hand how he instilled a solid set of values in his squad.
The Frenchman had cajoled his side through a whole Premier League season undefeated and it struck me that he had done a great job channelling Walsh. His team simply played for each other. The individuals in his squad, including big-hitters like Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira and Ashley Cole, submitted to the collective and enjoyed the fruits of their labour.
‘The Invincibles’ knew that, in warrior terms, they could leave their sword, spear or bow on the battlefield but never their shield. Their shield’s value lay in its ability to protect other members of the squad and the integrity of the group as a whole.
Wenger has done an incredible amount for Arsenal, their fans and for the broader English game but nowadays he has his critics and I believe that’s rooted in his inability to sustain the squad dynamic that brought him so much success.
With retirements and transfers in and out of the club, the value system he programmed into his players became somehow diluted, but there’s another figure, with another approach, that was able to sustain his team’s success.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements at Manchester United need no description here but, while his players were well aware they played for each other, not to mention the United shirt and everything it carries with it, they knew exactly who was the boss.
Three years after withdrawing from team affairs, the Scotsman’s presence still hangs over the club thanks to his strength of leadership. While I wouldn’t directly endorse his level of ruthlessness– if you didn’t play for him or for your teammates, your future was short – I see his iron grip as rooted firmly in the desire to maintain the dynamic of the squad. And it worked.
Going back to the 1970s and to the world of West Indian cricket, Clive Lloyd faced an uphill task when he took on the captaincy in 1974. The side he inherited was a laughing stock in a global game dominated by the aggression of Australia, embodied by the two most feared fast bowlers on the planet at the time – Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
Lloyd asked himself what his team needed to do to win, and thought “if we can’t beat them, join them.” He set about reshaping the Windies as a more intimidating version of his Antipodean rivals, recognising their strengths, replicating them and doing them even better.
He didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, all he needed to do was decide on a central strategy, deploy the right resources and give his players the same values as we saw with the 49ers, the Packers, Arsenal and United. That and the necessary belief in themselves, each other and his methods.
15 years later and the West Indians had been on top of the world for over a decade and are today still regarded as the most formidable Test side ever.
By the same token, the New Zealand rugby team are the most revered in history and have won the last two World Cups with an engaging blend of thrilling rugby and undying team spirit. That spirit is perpetuated in a number of ways but one simple method sums up their approach.
After every game, their captain and one his senior lieutenants are both given brooms which they use to sweep out the changing room. While one might not expect the All Blacks skipper to be charged with such a menial task, it sends an extremely powerful message – that, no matter who you are, no matter where you sit in the hierarchy, the team overrides everything.
Not only does it brush away any doubt in the mind of the leader, it tells his players that he will not ask them to do anything he is not prepared to do himself. With their strength anchored in unity, the individual is seen as no more and no less than an agent acting in the interests and working towards the goals of the collective.
One of the earliest and, indeed, greatest self-improvement writers of the modern era, Napoleon Hill, wrote in his seminal 1937 book Think and Grow Rich, “great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.” He argued all the way back then that the era of the ‘go-getter’ was over and that ours is the time of the ‘go-giver’.
Success won’t come to those who use selfish means to achieve. It comes as a natural consequence of leaders asking themselves what they can give to their teams to enable them to reach their potential.
In the 21st century business world, skills and aptitude are clearly very important. But, if we hope to attain team goals, the most important factor rests on a leader’s ability to give to his or her team. To give them the right values and to give them the clarity of purpose, as a collective, to move forward as one and overcome the many obstacles life throws at us.