On more than one occasion when writing about innovation, leadership, or entrepreneurship, I've turned to sports to offer parallel lessons and with good reason. The games people play are human endeavors, in other words, something we can all relate to. But more than that, sports, and especially team sports, suggest an important blend of success factors that while obvious in a sporting context, actually apply to success anywhere humans gather, collaborate, or compete. Four factors in particular stand out.
Rather than delve deeply into each of the four, here I'll take a cue from sports itself. I'll give you the quick calls - like the hand signals the third base coach gives his runner on second to steal or stay put, or the audible a quarterback calls as a play goes live when he sees an unexpected change in the conditions - those calls that are understood and work because of certain fundamentals things that lie below the immediate that make a team truly great. Should you want more, you'll find that each of the 4 lessons below links to a fuller story about that particular success factor. Ready? Play.
The most important factor for success in sports is culture. Period. Hands down. Mic drop. True enough, we laud the stars and the standouts. But no star forward has ever been able to win a hockey game or soccer match without a good goalie and a great defensive line. And while the individual abilities of the players matter, something deeper enables a team to not only win consistently, but to dig deep when winning is hard and matters most. Too often we minimize the importance of culture, either hiding it behind a hot streak, or by blaming individual players when things go awry. But the most resilient teams know that success follows a hard to predict curve of crests and troughs they must be committed to riding at the lowest points as well as the peaks. When a team shows signs that it lacks such a commitment, often we speak of toxic culture. In truth, it's usually the absence of culture altogether that is to blame.
If culture is the key group factor, composure is the individual power source that most raises the odds of long-lasting success. And yet, it is probably the most overlooked. We laud the victories, and we raise up the stars, so much so that we can come to believe that it's only about the wins and the heroes. But take a look at the lasting champions of any sport and you'll see something more. You'll see leadership, a deep and indeed spoken appreciation of the role of others, an air of gravitas in setback moments, and a sense of a larger whole in every move. It's called composure, something some seem almost born with, and others destined to learn the hard way - but learn they must. Without it, it's incredibly hard to get very far, and success, if it comes at all, is fleeting.
What brings a team together, indeed the fertile ground on which culture and composure join forces is shared purpose. It is not enough for the star to have a purpose. Even if her role on the field of play or court is individual, if there's not common ground she shares with her coaches, trainers, managers, even fans, inevitably, often rapidly, cracks on the surface begin to show. And cracks quickly become chasms that are easy to slide down into. If you need proof of this, try thinking not about your favorite athlete or team, but about those countless players and franchises that flashed briefly and brightly, only to be vaguely remembered on obscure sports trivia nights.
Purpose isn't just something that as a team you state once and file away. It's something to which you must attend every single day. Purpose is at its most powerful when it's instilled - infused in every goal, every action, and every aspect of how a team does what it does. It is the most potent element in any quest, and also the most underleveraged in most organizations.
Talk of culture, composure, and purpose is to be taken seriously, but not too seriously. There is without a doubt a 'business' element to any competitive undertaking. But a team's ability to compete and to do so effectively over time comes down to their ability to perpetually adapt. To adapt, you need to be able to question and create. To create, you must be open and always aware as the world changes around you. And when open, you need to remember that among our many valuable human traits, play is one of the most critical. Play is our creative catalyst - an act that extends beyond the planned and the prioritized, to the sheer joy of being alive and taking part. Without play there would be no game. Play on.