What can underdog sports teams remind us about leadership?

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Why do established organizations fail to realize their potential? Or better yet, why do the underdogs surprise us with success—sometimes even for the feeling of being miraculous?

There is no better representation of this spirit than the Miracle 1980 Team USA hockey team. Legendary coach Herb Brooks cheered on an elite group of players (who weren’t necessarily the most talented) who would go on to defeat the four-time gold medal defender of the Soviet Union and capture the gold medal at Lake Placid.

long before jim collins good to GreatSimon Sinek’s Why startAngela Duckworth’s Patience and Jaco Willink extreme ownershipWe had extraordinary leaders showing us the way down the short journey and what the DNA of success looks like. moneyball And miracle That’s why I have two favorite movies – shocking if not miraculous success of these organizations

These sports stories and writers help inform and remind us that while talent, smarts and experience are certainly important, elements like rapport, culture, and patience are primary. We see it play out over and over again in our favorite underdog sports stories and if we take a step back, we’ll see it in any outfit.

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talent and experience are good

Herb Brooks showed us that you “win with people, not talent,” that the key components are “people with a solid value system” and that recruiting “from a cross-section of different personalities, talents, and styles of play” .

Oakland A’s general manager Billy Bean showed us something similar in 2002 $41 million payroll moneyball crew Captured the American League record with 20 consecutive wins and claimed a similar regular season winning record (103 wins) as the Yankees’ $125 million payroll. Very few talented A’s put together a unique team and rallied based on no-frills, team-first strategy (which involved trading players without character or fit for missions).

Perhaps a lesser-known case study, the Las Vegas Golden Knights came into the expansion NHL franchise league, which only had the ability to draft unprotected players from existing teams. Faced with the challenge of not having the most talented players available, his leadership seizes the opportunity to choose the right players who would fit his team’s mission, culture and system.

During their first year, they went 51–24–7 and lost in the Stanley Cup Finals. But from 2018 to 2021, they won seasons and trips to the playoffs every year, two trips to the conference finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

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Mission, culture and synergy are essential

I’ve personally tasted success launching two successful organizations at two different times in my life: one in business not too long ago, and the other as a hockey coach in my early 20s (two wildly different scenario, I know). Back in 2001, I was at the University of Illinois at Chicago getting my bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and conducting youth hockey as a side job. I played youth, junior and college club hockey, although I had never coached before.

One fateful day, I saw a posting looking for instructors for an inaugural high school program. I interviewed for the position of head coach of the newly formed University of Lincoln-Way East Hockey Club, knowing full well how aspirational such a move was. When I was offered the position, I was equally excited and intimidated. To my knowledge, I was the youngest university head coach in the state—with no coaching experience—and I had to select and coach a roster of players to go against more established programs, none of whom were seniors. was.

I first picked players based on character and passed on to several players who had more size and experience. Our mission (and the hands-on battle cry before each game) was simple: Honor. As an opening team, our opponents will naturally underestimate us. This was our fuel. We decided collectively that we would be the hardest working, hardest hitting, most annoying team to play against. If we do this, then in the end victory will come.

We implemented defensive systems that let the more talented teams down – we coordinated our collective efforts to become something bigger than the individually skilled players. In our inaugural season, we won our conference championship. By our third season, we had moved from the inaugural event under the radar to 26th in the state, capturing two conference championships along the way.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, I was given the opportunity and privilege to form and lead a new organization at my current company, Abbott (interestingly, one of Collins’ companies). With my past coaching experience as well as myriad lessons in business and life, along with those covered in this article, I was excited about the right players, the right culture, and the right mission of our organization.

I once again chose the right people – exemplified by three wonderful managers – to set up the right culture. Together, our entire group aligned on the cause of our organizational mission. Despite the immense challenges our group faced in the first year (not the least of which was the group’s debut in the pandemic), success inevitably followed.

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Align with mission, Keep up with culture, Growing in harmony

For senior leaders and hiring managers, there are some incredible takeaways to be found in these underdog sports stories.

  1. Mission, culture and synergy optimize organizational efficiency. If you’re an underdog or small organization, your authentic leadership of living a purpose-driven mission – and hiring a purpose-driven team that is amplified by the synergy of different perspectives and backgrounds – is more than enough for you to compete. The key to becoming big is against big market teams. Frankly, you have no choice, at least if you want to reach your highest potential. If you are an established organization, imagine how high a boat can fly by applying these principles.
  2. Don’t be deterred by talent, tenure or credentials. Experience, advanced degrees and so on are secondary to being the right person who will catalyze a rapport that would not happen otherwise. As leaders, we need to explore the diversity of ideas, perspectives and skills that make the team bigger than they are. Always choose the right player – better for the mission, culture and synergy – than the more talented / tenured / experienced player.
  3. Repeat steps one and two. With the right players and the right culture, we need to constantly – and authentically – reinvent our organization. Commitments to stages one and two are most loudly voiced by who gets hired, fired and promoted.

It takes synergy on skill, character from experience and courage to pick the right player over the most talented. But over time, with the right DNA, an incredible culture is realized – one where the unique contributions of the right players are amplified. What follows is the highest realization of a team’s potential. Perhaps miracle Not so miraculous then, just extraordinary leadership.