Team spirit! What is it? How do you know when you have it?

I have to admit, I’ve always wondered about the whole team spirit thing. Truth be known, my earliest recollection of the concept dates back to high school when the football cheering squad would gather in the school auditorium before every home game to try to pump up the troops. To me, these “pep rallies” always seemed a tad superficial, as if enthusiasm and team spirit could simply be manufactured if everyone just cheered loudly enough. To my mind, real team spirit was something much more creative and spontaneous, the product of some mysterious mix of human chemistry. But if true, this idea begs a few questions. How does this mysterious process happen? Can it be recognized and captured? Can the synergistic effects of team spirit be applied consistently to improve performance?

Over the years, I have participated in various sport and business events that have got me thinking seriously about these questions, that is, about what defines a strong team and about what lessons might be drawn from the team-building experience. Clearly, a team must be more than just a group of individuals driven by self-interest. When we think of teams, we typically think of a group working together to achieve a common goal, for example, a hockey team trying to win the Stanley Cup or a production team striving to launch a new product. As most managers and coaches know, building a strong team is not without its challenges. In his bestselling book Eleven Rings, renowned basketball coach Phil Jackson talks about the challenges of getting supremely talented individual athletes such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to become team players despite the lure of superstardom. His message – no matter how talented, there is no individual player talented enough to carry an entire team to victory. Worse, selfish individual play always has a detrimental effect on others and undermines team performance.

But what about cases that reward individual effort over teamwork? In business, this might be a high performing sales representative; in the arts, it might be a creative genius, and in sports a track and field superstar. On closer inspection however, one usually finds that what appears to be a solo endeavor is really one that has been nurtured by a supporting cast of helpers, mentors, teachers and coaches who have contributed in some way to the individual’s growth and performance. Indeed, what looks to be an overnight success often turns out to be the result of an extended group effort, sometimes years or decades in the making.

Leaders, managers, advisors, mentors and coaches have an important responsibility to create the conditions for high performance. This means recognizing and nurturing talent but also being mindful of the dynamics and synergies that can contribute to team success. Time and patience are prerequisites as the group transitions through the typical forming, storming, norming and performing stages of development. So too is innovative thinking. In the movie Moneyball, Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) built a winning team not by signing the best talent as defined by traditional metrics (which would have been too expensive for his limited budget) but by identifying, developing and exploiting underutilized talent and getting the players to believe in themselves as individuals and as a team. As the Oakland experience pointed out, sometimes the characteristics of a winning team aren’t immediately obvious, and relying on preconceived formulas has its risks.

Interestingly, team spirit often plays an important role in individual performance as well. Sports such as boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, cycling and swimming offer many examples of how a group of individual athletes can transform into a strong team. Motivated by a higher purpose, national Olympic teams tend to display many of the qualities we have come to expect from high performing athletes, whether competing in an individual or team sport. It comes as no surprise that uniforms, banners and symbols are important to the bonding process. Everyone knows that the Montreal Canadiens jersey is more than just a sweater just as the national flag is more than a piece of cloth.

Clearly, team spirit is potent but is it sustainable? After all, many great teams fade away, losing those magical ingredients that once made them great. Yet, I would postulate that team spirit endures when it is rooted in the ongoing pursuit of excellence. Over the long haul, this effort becomes part of a culture fueled by the celebration of achievement and reflected in the symbols and products of shared experience.

Reflecting back over the many years since my high school days, I have often thought about the take away lessons that might be gleaned from my team experiences in business, athletics and life in general.

Here is what stands out:

  1. Team spirit is a powerful energizing force.
  2.  Team spirit is engendered by shared experience and common bonds.
  3.  Team spirit develops from a performance mindset (involving the pursuit of ambitious goals or overcoming serious obstacles).
  4.  Team spirit is nurtured well in advance of its manifestation.
  5.  Team spirit arises out of collective interest rather than self-interest.
  6.  Team spirit is sustained by symbols and winning traditions.
  7.  Team spirit thrives on investment and commitment.
  8.  Team spirit requires innovation and renewal.
  9.  Team spirit is culture.
  10.  Team spirit is contagious.

While I have come to accept that “pep rallies” and cheering squads have their place, I would assert that there is much more that can be done to create genuine and lasting team spirit. By recognizing and nurturing the conditions that promote genuine team spirit, leaders, managers and coaches will be contributing to the winning conditions necessary for long-term success.