When one of my favorite sports teams loses a crucially important game, I tend to spend a period of time with a sense of loss and depression. In March of 2017, the University of Michigan Basketball team lost such a game. The team was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by one point. Yet I had no sense of loss or depression.
In fact, neither did the coach. They interviewed him ten minutes after the loss and he did not speak as coaches usually speak. He offered no strategic assessment of what happened nor did he express any sense of regret. He spoke from his heart. He seemed to be in awe of the level of selflessness that had been achieved during the latter part of the season. He actually spoke as if the loss was inconsequential.
The story of the team is now well known. For much of the season they were average. At one point, they were called a “white collar” team. It led some Michigan players to rethink who they were. The team also made some improvements on offense and defense and played better.
In traveling to the first game of the Big Ten tournament, their plane was blown off the runway. It was a significant life event that seemed to cause everyone to rethink who they were. There were many statements made about the higher purposes in life. There were also many claims about deeper bonding on the team. As an eighth seed, they won the Big Ten Tournament. No one had ever done that before.
In the NCAA Tournament, they continued their upward trajectory and played with impressive cohesion. What dawned on me during the last game is that they were not only more cohesive as a team, but each starter was performing at a higher level than I have seen them perform in the last two years.
Earlier that same day, I was teaching some senior executives. We were covering a topic that is difficult because we so seldom recognize it: the emergence of spontaneous collaboration in the pursuit of a meaningful purpose.
At one point I asked them if any of them, at any time in their life, had been on any kind of high-performing team. Many hands went up. I asked what happened to them personally when they joined the high-performing team. The common response was that as individuals they got better.
I told them that we often look back at such experiences as one of the high points of our career. When individuals are brought together and begin to selflessly contribute to the collective purpose, the whole becomes synergistic. We say “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
What we do not recognize is this: the parts also become greater. In the challenge of competition and the safety of highly bonded relationships, we willingly extend ourselves. Leadership spontaneously moves from person to person as necessary. Learning and development accelerates both individually and collectively. The whole becomes more than it is and the parts become more than they are. The individuals tend to perform beyond expectation.
When this happens, human potential is realized. The experience alters our perspective. Winning a game is no longer a narrow end. It is now an end and a means. If we pursue victory with full commitment and we sacrifice ego for selfless collaboration, we witness the emergence both of collective and individual excellence.
There is a problem. Some people tell me they have never been part of a high-performing team. They do not understand what I am talking about. This is important because many managers do not aspire to high collaboration because they do not believe it is possible. One of the differences between a manager and a leader is that a leader aspires to and pursues high collaboration.
In high collaboration, we are exposed to the best of the collective and the best of the individual. Exposure to a person’s best self usually results in a sense of awe. Exposure to the collective best also produces a sense of awe. I think that is why the coach spoke in an unconventional way. I think that is why I am not depressed. This season, everyone won.
- Have I ever been on a truly excellent team? What do I learn from my memories?
- Do I aspire to elevate every collective to excellence?
- In the organization, are there collectives of excellence and how could we leverage this fact to spread excellence?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?