I had the honor of helping coach a high school cross country team my first year out of college. I will never forget the county championship that year; it inspired me more than any other one event in my running career. We had the fastest runner in the county by far but the way Cross Country works is you take your top 5 finishers in a given race add up their place and the team with the lowest score wins the meet. Talent wise, our second best runner “Paul” was probably 5th in the county behind our top runner and three runners from our rival school. Paul had not beaten the three runners from our rival school all year. Each race he would try to stay with them but they would use a surge and relax tactic that wore him out every race and they ended up out kicking him in the end. If we were going to win the county championship, Paul needed to beat these three runners. The day of the race, our top runner came to Paul and said he would go out in a steady pace and for him to draft and not worry about the surge and relax tactics of the rival runners. By doing this our top runner would get Paul in striking distance at the end, running a steady pace which Paul was much better at. Instead of running off with the race and finishing way ahead of any other runner, our top runner went out at a slower pace and Paul was able to draft off of him for almost the entire 5 miles of the race. True to form with half a mile to go they were running with the rival schools runners but this time Paul was way more relaxed because he had not been worn out by their surge tactics. As they started around the last turn with 200 meters to go our top runner stepped to the inside and slowed slightly blocking off the rival schools runners and allowing Paul to start his kick and take the lead. The rival runners had to slow slightly, losing momentum to get around to the outside and pass our top runner before starting their kick; this gave Paul the advantage he needed to hold them off. Our top runner had an incredible kick and not only passed back the rival school’s runners, but of course passed Paul as well, winning the race. They took the top two spots and ended up with the team title beating their rival school. I have never forgotten the sacrifice our top runner made, not for Paul, but for the team. He sacrificed his own personal record and had to work much harder to win the race than he would have had to otherwise. He also ran the risk of not winning and being the county champion, all for the possibility of giving the team a chance to be in a position to win. That, to me, exemplifies teamwork.

A lot of people talk about teamwork, but few people truly show it. It is a very misunderstood quality. There is nothing glamorous in it; in fact, when you really have a cohesive team, it means collectively giving the group credit for accomplishments rather than taking credit yourself. It is talking in terms of “we” instead of “I” when talking about the successes of the team, but talking in terms of “I” as the leader of the team instead of “we” when the team falls short. It is looking in the mirror and being honest with yourself about what you could have done differently to affect the outcome. Had our top runner not been able to come back and win the race, he would not have blamed the strategy or anyone else, he would have carried that weight himself and accepted responsibility–that is leadership, that is teamwork and it is not easy to accomplish.

“I am a member of a team, I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it because the team, not the individual is the ultimate champion.” – Mia Hamm

Working together as one team does not mean that there are never any disagreements or debates; in fact, when you truly break down the silos and have a collective group working towards a common goal, it often creates more disagreement and debate about the path the team should take. Though these conversations can be uncomfortable at times, as a leader, you should cherish them because it is in these times that the best ideas are formed. It means that the team is coming together because they feel comfortable enough with each other to have honest debates. As the leader, the key then becomes guiding those discussions and helping the team come to a resolution that the team then buys into, whole heartedly, regardless of their individual opinion. Then, the team goes back to their department and implements the plan as if it were their own.

“When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving the team your honest opinion whether you think they will like it or not. Disagreement at this stage is a stimulate to coming up with the best plan but once a decision has been made, the debate ends, from that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.” – Colin Powell

Everyone talks about teamwork, but very few actually accomplish it. Teamwork is having open communication across all departments. It is confidently knowing that every member of the team knows the goals and objectives and the part they play in reaching those goals. It is accepting that each individual’s success or failure is tied to the team’s success or failure. Teamwork is lifting up others when they struggle or fall short so that the team does not suffer. Teamwork is about giving credit for each success instead of taking it. It is about accepting responsibility when the team falls short instead of placing blame on others.

 “You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TALENT TO WIN ON TALENT ALONE!” – Herb Brooks (Coach of the 1980 US Hockey team that won the gold Medal in a huge upset against the Soviets)

It would have been easy for our top runner to run away with the victory in the county championship and to claim “I did my part by winning the race” when the team finished second behind their rivals. Instead he sacrificed his individual goals for the goals of the team and helped to make the team better than the sum of its parts. Within a cohesive team, accountability is a non-issue because each member of the team knows the others are counting on them and working hard, shoulder to shoulder, trying to accomplish the same goal. The peer pressure of knowing how hard everyone else is working causes you to hold yourself more accountable than any manager ever could.