I have been a part of a team for all of my adult life. Sometimes as a leader, other times, a subordinate, but ALWAYS as a member. Any professional success I achieved was the result of teamwork. Any accomplishment, the harvest of time spent working with others towards a common goal. As Nigerian author, Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha, so ably stated, “Teamwork is the secret that makes common people achieve an uncommon result.”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines teamwork as “the combined actions of a group of people working together effectively to achieve a goal.” Borrowing a phrase from my Army lexicon, teamwork is essentially a “unity of effort”; people banded together in pursuit of a common objective. In the words of James Cash Penney, founder of the department store chain that bears his name – J.C. Penney -, “The best teamwork comes from people who are working independently toward one goal in unison.”
Though some have referred to me as a good leader, from my perspective, I am a much more effective team builder. Like President Ronald Reagan, I have always viewed myself just an adequate leader but in understanding this shortcoming, made a career of identifying and recruiting subordinates who were talented, skillful and above all, could function as a member of a team. To that end, I hold African poet and essayist, Ogwo David Emenike’s observation “You can’t do it better without teamwork” sacrosanct.
I have found there are very few tasks executed better in solitary confinement than performed by a coalition of like-minded and similarly motivated teammates. Financial entrepreneur, Farshad Asl, proclaimed “Be fast, be first, but never be alone. Nothing can replace the value of teamwork.” As a results multiplier, few outcomes surpass the synergy spawned from an alliance of similarly focused colleagues. Auto industrialist and inventor, Henry Ford, addressed the virtue of this phenomenon stating “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
Following my retirement from the Army in 2010, I spent four years – 2011-2015 – as a Department of Defense (DoD) GS civilian in Afghanistan. During this time I had the honor of leading cadres of advisors who supported the Afghan security institutions. My teams included senior DoD civilians (GS13-15), US military officers from all five services in the ranks of captain to colonel, and a host of military and police officers from around the globe. In almost all instances we were able to coalesce into cohesive elements focused on a common goal. As a collective, we keenly embraced what the “Father of the Japanese Short Story”, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, meant when he penned the following stave: “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
That said, not everyone was quick to seize the title, teammate, or extol the merits of teamwork. Sadly, some of the professionals I managed lacked the desire, ability or willingness to grasp the goodness of collaboration and as such, undermined the effectiveness of the mission and threatened morale and espirt de corps. Addressing teamwork, Canadian philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo, shrewdly noted “On one foot you limp; on two feet you sprint.”
For the guileful few in question this metaphor was unnoticed leading to a decision on my part to “vote them off the island” (a phrase a few of you will recognize form the popular TV show, “Survivor; shameful, yes, but very apropos) and send them home. For some reading this blog, perhaps a strong tonic but as Emirati business consultant, Nazim Ambalath declared “Teamwork builds trust and the trust builds growth.” In my eyes, a threat to trust was a threat to success.
Several years ago, Ukrainian pastor, Sunday Adelaja, proclaimed “Команда – це відображення свого лідера” (“A team is a reflection of its leader.”) For some, this declaration is an endorsement, for others, an indictment. Never wanting to be lumped with the latter I adopted an approach early in my career. Truth in lending, it is not an original concept but it is one that has served me very well over the years both in terms of building teams and directing them on a glide-path to success.
My “12 Cs” to building a winning team are as follows in no order of preference or priority:
- COACHING: Simply stated, be a teacher and be a mentor. Provide guidance, support and oversight. “Teamwork is…people working as one. You become selfless.” – Duke University basketball coaching legend and United States Military Academy at West Point graduate, Mike Krzyzewski
- CHARACTER: Set the example. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Remember, “Character is much easier kept than recovered.” – Thomas Paine, one of the first American Colonists to advocate for independence from England
- COMMUNICATION: Never forget that the art of listening is just as critical as the art of speaking. To lead, one must be able to listen. “The art of communication is the language of leadership” – Presidential speechwriter, James C. Hume
- COMMITMENT: The leader must be the most invested member of the team. If your subordinates realize this they will likely exhibit the same level of caring. If not, disunity is a foregone conclusion. “Commitment is an act, not a word.” – French satirist and philosopher, John-Paul Sarte
- CONTAGIOUS ENERGY: As the leader, if you are not the hardest worker on the team, you are wrong. If you are, your subordinates will follow. Another Frenchman, poet and essayist, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, penned the following “L’inspiration vient de travailler tous les jours” (“Inspiration comes of working every day”)
- CARING and CONCERN: Mission first; your people always. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – The 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt
- CONSISTENCY: Do not vacillate; your subordinates must always know what to expect. According to Lincoln Chafee, “Trust is built through consistency.”
- COLLABORATION: Talk to your people; make sure their ideas are heard. “Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” – American Civil War veteran and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes
- CULTIVATE: Create an environment that propagates independent thought and encourages a fertilization of ideas and discourse. “Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence” – Indian Social Reformer, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
- CERTIFY: Give credit where credit is due. My mantra: Every good idea sprang from a subordinate; every bad one, the progeny of the leader. “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” The 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman
- CAMRADERIE: As a leader, foster an atmospheric that overtly inspires the team concept. “If I miss anything about sports, it is the camaraderie of old teammates.” – Bo Jackson, former Major Leagues Baseball and National Football League superstar. “Bo Knows.”
- CONSUMMATE: Finish what you start. See it through. “One worthwhile task finished to conclusion is better than 50 half-finished tasks.” B.C. Forbes, founder of “Forbes” magazine
Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) humbly offered “None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” This clause is a perfect segue to a statement from American champion of the disabled, Helen Keller, who said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Both passages speak loudly to the core of this narrative.
Belonging to a team, be it work or play, can be a rewarding experience. When everyone does their part, pulls in the same direction and remains unselfishly focused on a common goal amazing things happen. In the words of French politician, Jean-François Copé, “Don’t pass an opportunity to contribute and choose teamwork over personal ambition.”
Before he passed away at age 14, American poet, Mattie Stepanak, noted “Unity is strength; when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” Over a century earlier, American novelist, Louisa May Alcott, strummed the same chord writing “It takes two flints to make a fire.” Thoughts to always channel when navigating the complexities of the Second Fifty.
This blog entry is dedicated to all the tremendous teams I have been a part of over the years. Most recently, those who serve with me on the Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) Training Program. Together, we have accomplished much!
The title of this blog entry is a paraphrase from a quote by National Basketball Association Hall of Famer, Michael Jordan, who said “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” A player known just as much for his enormous talent and skill as for his unselfish approach to teamwork. A player who elevated those around him to greatness.