When senior executives take a hard look at their organizations they sometimes marvel at the teams that seem to do it all. Such teams meet the deadlines, conform to budgets, and best of all they work together really well. And they even seem to have fun doing it.
Very often such teams may not have the “best or the brightest.” Certainly they have individuals with talent and skills but they don’t have the superstars. They have each other instead.
What such teams possess is strong leadership. Not the kind that comes from management but from within the team itself. Capable teams have one or two people who know how to lead by example; they set the tone for how to work. They provide focus as well as inspiration.
They possess what author Lonnie Wheeler calls the right work ethic. They know how to make fellow workers better. In his new book, Intangiball, Wheeler, a veteran baseball writer, identifies the kind of ball players who make good teams winning teams. Wheeler derives his title from “the intangible” over which baseball observers obsess. These intangibles don’t show up as statistics but they are – as Wheeler includes in the book’s subtitle — “the subtle things that win baseball games.”
One kind of intangible is “situational.” As Wheeler explained to Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, it is when a batter take a pitch so another player can steal, or a fielder calls out a fly ball to prevent a collision in the outfield. Fundamental stuff. That is important but what may be more important over the course of a season – remember baseball stretches nearly nine months between spring training and post-season – is another kind of intangible that Wheeler labels as the “environmental intangibles.”
“It’s players, by whatever means,” says Wheeler, “making other players better through counsel, through example, work ethic. It’s a social thing. It’s players rubbing off on each other, playing well with others, creating a culture and atmosphere that is conducive specifically to winning.” In short they engage the hearts and minds of fellow players by teaching what they know and helping individuals succeed in a team sport.
Players with environmental intangibles approach the game as professionals. That is, they take care of themselves physically and they show up prepared to play. They also talk to players, cheer them up when they are down, or even chew them out if they are not paying attention, or acting out. Says Wheeler, “It’s not necessarily creating a kind and gentle environment where everybody’s getting along and having a good time. Sometimes…what’s required is some tough love or some harsh words.”
Players who are gifted may not be able to help their teams the right way. Wheeler cites the example of the former in Ken Griffey, Jr. a bona fide superstar. At the end of his career Griffey was unable to perform as he once did; injuries and age had taken their toll on his physical prowess. And while Griffey, Jr. was personable and even funny, he could not play with the energy he once did. He even had a recliner placed in front of his locker where he liked to relax before a game. Younger players tended to emulate Griffey’s easygoing ways. In time Griffey was traded away.
By contrast the Reds acquired a journeyman player, Scott Rolen, who lacked the statistics and ability of a Griffey, Jr. but made up for it with his approach to the game. While he had fallen afoul of his manager in St. Louis, coming to Cincinnati seemed to rejuvenate him. He became the role model the players needed. He played with energy and enthusiasm. Other players took notice. Cincinnati began to win again.
Good teams have what we call good chemistry. On the surface it may appear that everyone is getting along, and that’s certainly true, but what it really happening – to extend the chemistry metaphor– is through catalysis – the reaction that occurs when you add the right ingredients together.
In sports – or in the workplace – the catalyst is a team player who sets the tone for how to behave as a teammate. Call it the “one for all, all for one” type of leadership brings peers together for a common cause. Intangible yes, but it sure does work.
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