Sunday, August 2, 2009

Great Teams Never Give Up

Great teams never give up. In business, as in sports or any other human endeavor, the very best teams simply refuse to be defeated.

I was reminded of this fact several years ago when I had the honor to coach my daughter Lucia and her 3rd and 4th grade peers in basketball. Basketball, like business, is a fast-paced, rough and tumble game that involves lots of strategy and, in order to win, requires great skill and determination from its participants. At least at the highest levels of the sport, this is true.

But for Luci and her pals practices consisted mostly of social time, laughing, doing each other's hair, taking bathroom breaks together en masse, and some basketball. I tried to teach basic fundamentals, with a focus on teamwork. They took a vote and decided to call themselves the "Hot Peppers." I was not crazy about this team name, but went along. Did I mention the laughter?

This was a middling team, at best. During the regular season we might have won a couple more games than we lost. No one predicted greatness for this team.

But in the annual year-end tournament that determines the overall league champion, something came over the Peppers. They pulled together as a unit and demonstrated, almost heroically, that great teams never give up.

There was a team that had dominated the schedule all year long. This team had several girls who were big, strong and skilled. This team had gone undefeated in the regular season. Somehow the Peppers got through the preliminary rounds to face this team in the championship game.

I knew we were up against it, but wasn't sure if the girls knew. I did not want to invoke the Holy Bible and cite David and Goliath but, trust me, my thoughts went there. Instead, I recalled the recent Super Bowl, where a lowly underdog had defeated the mighty favorite.

"Did you girls see the Super Bowl?" "Yes." "Who won?" "The team that wasn't supposed to." "Right."

The Peppers went out and fought hard. They were behind most of the game. But suddenly, the other team started to play not to lose. They sat back on their heels. They made mistakes. They even panicked a bit near the end. The Peppers came back.

Pretty soon, with no time left, one of our little gals stepped up to the free throw line, score tied 15-15, with a chance to win the game. First shot missed. Second shot hit the back rim, bounced straight up, and came down through the hoop. Pandemonium erupted. The Peppers had triumphed. Dairy Queen beckoned.

What are the ingredients that go into creating a team with this kind of capability? First, leadership. And not just leadership of the obvious kind, as important as that is, from the head coach or the team leader in business. Leadership can come from any person, at any time. Our final couple of baskets came from one of our best athletes, who had played a quiet game up to that point. Isn't it amazing how your top performers always seem to come through, demonstrating leadership in the clutch?

The second ingredient is skill. Several girls on the Peppers, silliness aside, could put the rock in the hole when they felt like it. This is where hard work, repetition, and practice together as a unit come in. These are essential fundamentals in business, just as they are in sports.

Finally, there is the most important ingredient. This one is the most difficult to describe. Call it team chemistry, call it trust and confidence, call it swagger, call it what you will. A truly great team believes in itself in a way that is palpable. You can see it in the way such a team carries itself, interacts together and ultimately performs.

We are in difficult times right now, but teams that possess that magical something will survive the trial. They will emerge stronger than they were before.

What will your team do in this economy? Will you play not to lose? Will you let events dictate what happens to you? Will you sit back? Will panic set in? Or will you look each other confidently in the eye, take control, count on your leaders, work hard together, trust each other, and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? This decision cannot be postponed.

In 1941 during the throes of World War Two, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the students at Harrow School, his alma mater, outside London. He said, "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never- in nothing great or small, large or petty- never give in…" That was good advice for young people during dark days, but isn't it interesting how young people can sometimes teach us too?

Occasionally, when I face a moment of truth in today's tumultuous world I think back, smile, and whisper to myself, "Remember the Peppers. Never give up."

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