May 2021
Setting Up the Organizational Touchdown
Leadership style is crucial to good teamwork

American football is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it does make teamwork look deceptively simple.

Everything seems to click. The quarterback receives the ball, cuts loose for a ten-yard sprint, stops and throws a 40-yard pass to a running back, who with unbelievable agility catches the ball, evades the defense and makes a spectacular touchdown. Could your team work that well? Would you like your team to work that well?

Two distinctly different teamwork models in the sports arena offer us valuable insights and perspectives on how we manage our own teams in the organizational environment, as well as the consequences of those choices in terms of morale and productivity.

Football is a spectacular and superbly executed sports event. The coach, who relies on information from strategically placed game-spotters and assistant coaches, calls every play. Players have little or no say in any of the plays or who will play them. The authority and responsibility of the coach is absolute, and without the coach the game would be a dismal, chaotic affair of misjudged calls and uncoordinated plays.

The system works, and there’s nothing wrong with it per se. No one can argue with the spectacle and excitement of football, its ritual, brutal drama and grand spectacle. Watching football on TV is a national pastime. But would you want to run your company like that? Surely such a successful and captivating sport, where disciplined well trained players make millions and captivate a nation, must have something instructive for the work environment — or does it?

Soccer presents an interesting contrast in management styles. The coach works intensely with the team until the game starts. Then the team members, empowered by the coach, self-manage themselves and all the plays while the coach sits quietly on the sidelines. Decisions are made by the person who gets the ball, who then has to quickly size up where everyone is on the team, and make a play. Players are trusted to make the right decisions. If a soccer coach tried to micromanage the game as in American football, there would be chaos, resentment and utter disempowerment of the players.

This contrast in management styles should give us pause. One team is managed in the traditional authoritarian manner, the other is a self-managing team where players make decisions. Which management style do you use in your organization, and which would be more productive? 

Studies done by US Postal Service management after a spate of workplace shootings determined, to their evident surprise, that employee dissatisfaction stemmed not from pay and benefits but from how they felt they were treated by their managers. Managers were found to be generally authoritarian, rarely including workers in any aspect of decision making, which led to a disempowerment of employees and morale breakdowns.

For several years I worked with a successful senior manager whose approach reflected the soccer model. Every Monday morning he assembled subordinate managers and asked each in turn about their accomplishments, setbacks and solutions. Each would share with colleagues how they were planning to deal with a particular setback, often caused unintentionally by a sister department or division. The senior manger would then ask how they perceived the problem, and how they might deal with it and contribute to the solution.

This practice empowered the entire management team to support one another by contributing solutions. This approach highlights the complexity of modern organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, where a director or senior manager cannot possibly understand the intricacies of each area under their supervision and must rely on the specialized knowledge of all team members to derive the right solution.

This approach is a far cry from the hierarchical style of management that disempowers both managers and employees. Smaller nonprofits, town councils and state legislators can fall into this trap when a senior person has a personal agenda and discounts or disregards input from the team.

The success of any team, and for that matter any family, depends on mutual respect and support. One of the gems I discovered in working with hundreds of teams is the powerful contribution just one person can make in changing a leadership dynamic. It is the role of the “servant-leader.”

In a team or family setting, people often pay less attention to ideas that are not forcefully presented. These ideas are frequently unheard, or are disregarded, in the cacophony of competing voices. This is where the servant-leader, a team member, assumes a vital role and asks the unheard person to again explain their idea to the group and how it might work. This focuses the team’s attention and forces its members to listen. The servant-leader assumes an unheralded leadership role that benefits the entire team or family and makes it more effective.

In the words of Rudyard Kipling:
Now this is the law of the jungle
As old and as true as the sky
And the wolf that keeps it will prosper
And the one that doesn’t will die
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk
The law runneth forward and back
For the strength of the pack is the wolf
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.

Individuals are only as effective as the support they receive from one another.

Mountaineer, sailor and corporate consultant Roy H. Smith served as a soldier in Yemen, Libya and East Africa, led two expeditions supported by the National Geographic Society in the Arctic and Ethiopia, and initiated the Outdoor Adventure Program at Prescott College in 1967.

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