team building

6 Things Every Leader Should Know About Team Building

December 18, 2020

Russ Ewell

Ultimately, the team has to come first even though we all have individual goals and preferences.

Bill Belichick
team building

Disclaimer:  Planning this article, I realized I did not have the book “The Winner Within,” so scouring the web I found these substitutes for quote references here, here and here. Comparing these with my reading memory gives me confidence in their accuracy, but buy the book to be sure.

Basketball taught me the importance of sacrificing individual goals and preferences for the team.

Al West and Mike Phelps were the coaches who taught me the “team first” mentality. Their job was not easy, because my desire for personal success was all-consuming.

Their efforts would have been in vain if not for my teammates. Men now and teenagers then, these friends taught me, protected me, and competed with me — all on the road to becoming champions. 

While this may sound like an incredible story of success, in actuality some of my most painful adolescent losses occurred on the East Kentwood Falcons basketball team. My desire to become a star was shattered by the reality that there were better players and better fits for what my coaches were trying to accomplish. 

More often than I would have liked, when the opportunity to be a star was greatest, my team contribution was cheering from the bench — not in the NBA, not in college, but in high school.

Watching friends accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish tested my commitment to the team, especially when a star at another school encouraged me to leave the Falcons and join him where I would have played a more significant role.

My decision to stay rather than run was based on my belief in two coaches and 12 teammates. Despite my feelings of disappointment and suggestions by others that injustice was the factor limiting my role, trust in these relationships shaped my understanding of team. For the first time in my life at age 16, I learned to say no to me.

When I reflect on the lessons of my adolescent years, it is these experiences with team which have remained with me, shaping my view of life and leadership. In fact, one of the essential qualities I look for in leaders is their experience with and capacity to be part of a team, their ability to conquer what Pat Riley, former NBA coach and current president of the Miami Heat, calls “The Disease of Me.”

The Disease of Me:

  1. Inexperience dealing with sudden success
  2. Chronic feelings of under appreciation – focus on oneself
  3. Paranoia over being cheated out of one’s rightful share
  4. Leadership vacuum resulting from formation of cliques and rivalries
  5. Feelings of frustration even when the team performs successfully
  6. Personal effort mustered solely to outshine one’s teammate
  7. Resentment of the competence of another

Fortunately, my adolescent experience battling my personal infection with the “Disease of Me” gave me the tenacity to keep going through failure, disappointment, and actual injustice throughout my life and leadership. It taught me the importance of playing whatever role necessary for my team to win rather than seeking the role I preferred.

These hard and necessary lessons are those which I wish to share in this space. Here are my “6 Things Every Leader Should Know About Team Building” in no particular order.

#1 The best player is always obvious

Starting with that season, I felt Michael Jordan never played basketball anymore. He just figured out how to win the games. He knew how to steer momentum. He knew how to get guys going.

And not only was he that good on the offensive end, he was just as good on the defensive end. So he was just playing a different game than the rest of us. He let us play, but he was there to win the game. And he knew that, and once he figured that out, you couldn’t beat him.

BJ Armstrong, The Last Dance

When you play on a team – whether it be basketball or bocce, football or ultimate frisbee, soccer or shuffleboard – the best player is always obvious. B.J. Armstrong said of Michael Jordan, “He let us play, but he was there to win the game.” His points are many, but the obvious one is the team’s awareness that Michael Jordan was their best player.

One of the greatest obstacles to team building is when people argue in their minds about who the best person on the team might be, when the numbers, the performance, the production, the overall impact on the bottom-line make this obvious.

Teams whose contributors insist on being stars (those whom Shaquille O’Neal affectionately calls “the others”), who fail to see the importance of their complementary roles, will descend into division and backbiting. This is because of their refusal to face the fact that on a team, the best player is always obvious.

Politics and gameplaying end when we start with the sometimes painful but necessary truth that someone other than us is the best player on the team. Those like me who are typically part of Shaq’s “others” will be most satisfied when we acknowledge the obvious: someone else is the best player. Then we can get about the business of finding out how we can make our team a winner.

#2 The most important player isn’t always the best player

Bill Walton showed up for practice after a ten-day break wearing a beard, violating Wooden’s rule of no facial hair. “It’s my right,” Walton said. Wooden asked if he really believed that and Walton said he did. “That’s good, Bill. I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. I really do, and we’re going to miss you on the team.” Walton went into the locker room and shaved off the beard.

John Reger, Quotable Wooden

Those of us who are not the best player may have struggled with the first point, but this one is where those who believe they are the best will struggle. Being the best player does not make us the most important player.

Bill Walton is, in my view, one of the five greatest college players in the history of college basketball. He made his team one of the three greatest college teams in history, which is why I love sharing the quote from above.

Coach John Wooden, who is in my opinion the greatest coach of any sport in history, responded to his best player’s desire to be an exception to team rules with the clarity of a man who knows that the most important player isn’t always the best player. He told Bill Walton his choice would mean he was no longer needed on the team.

In The Winner Within, Pat Riley explains the concept this way: “Being a part of success is more important than being personally indispensable.”  While Bill Walton was without question the best player on the UCLA basketball team, arguably the most important player was their leader and all-American point guard Henry Bibby.

Teams cannot be teams when any player – especially the best player – believes they are indispensable.

#3 Structure protects us from our worst instincts

I told players at UCLA that we, as a team, are like a powerful car. Maybe a Bill Walton or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Jordan is the big engine, but if one wheel is flat, we’re going no place.

John Wooden, in Quotable Wooden by John Reger

The discipline of structure is essential for building great teams, because structure protects us from our worst instincts.

Coaches in sports provide “playbooks” detailing the specific roles and actions of each player on every play. Executives at companies develop mission statements, organizational charts, budgets, and a variety of culture-shaping mantras all in an effort to provide clarity about roles and actions. Structure keeps the team functioning efficiently, like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

Team members without discipline – people who want to do what they want to do when they want to do it – are distracting, disruptive, and diminish the ability of the team to function successfully. Their ultimate goal is self-satisfaction, not team success.

Structure reins in the temptations for team members to be selfish by keeping them focused on their contribution to team success. Those who struggle with and resist committing to structure, playing their role, or working cohesively with others, must change or go. As long as someone places their desires above the team, success is impossible.

#4 Everyone needs a coach

“Ultimately, a team belongs to the people who get the job done. The leader exists to serve them, to create an environment in which their talents can flourish, and that is the coach’s or leaders’ obligation to the Covenant.”

Pat Riley, The Winner Within

We may feel like there are exceptions to this rule – people like Lebron, Kobe, Michael, Magic, or Larry who only need their first names mentioned. But in reality, all of us need coaching, both us mere mortals and the aforementioned greats.

Coaches spend their efforts creating a culture and environment designed to bring the best out of each team member. Their devotion to the team is measured by their capacity to bring the best out of each player, be they a star or bench player.

This same truth exists in business, politics, or religion. All too often, those whose job it is to coach are competing with the players by seeking credit, control, or some other misguided attempt to find relevance. Coaches need to understand that the coach, just like the players, has a role to play — a necessary but not indispensable one.

Coaches create the culture of a team, what will be valued, how success will be measured, and most importantly providing the answers to the ‘why’ questions:  

  • Why should I play my role? 
  • Why should I work this hard? 
  • Why should I accept your decisions? 

#5 Learn to accept and deal with loss

“We sometimes need adversity to fathom our true depths. Dealing with profound loss can be the most meaningful, most rewarding event in our lives.”

Pat Riley, The Winner Within

Successful teams handle failure as well as – if not better than – success. Learning to accept and deal with loss teaches us we are entitled to nothing. Sometimes others are simply better, and in that moment winning means learning how to get up, get better, and try again.

One of the most predictable facts about every team is losing reveals the true motive of every team member: those who are devoted to the team, and those who are merely using the team to accomplish their own purposes.

Those who are devoted to the team get up, get better, and try again.  Those who are merely using the team give up, run away, and look for a better opportunity somewhere else.

More often than not, it is the losing which helps the coach find the pieces that will actually lead to consistent success. Those who are not devoted to the team are first to jump ship, providing the opportunity to find players who are a better fit.

#6 Allen Iverson might not need practice but you do

“Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”

Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson, one of the greatest NBA players in history, was once questioned about missing practice. He answered with the quote from above. His perspective was, for someone like him who had been practicing from early childhood, it was ridiculous to make a big deal about missing a practice.  

While Allen Iverson might have a point, the truth is that players are made in practice. This is where we do the hard work necessary to perform well in the clutch, under immense levels of stress and pressure.  

Pat Riley often refers to practice or preparation being the key to avoiding failure in those clutch moments when everything is on the line, minutes are left, and our performance will determine victory or defeat.

When I was a kid one of my favorite players was a point guard named John Lucas from the University of Maryland. He used to say, “Each season I have to be 15% better just to be the same.” This is a statement about the importance of practice.

Team members who will not put in the work to improve and get better each month and year will ultimately hurt not only themselves but their teammates. It is our personal growth which inspires our teammates to keep growing.  This makes it possible for every player, no matter his or her role, to become a catalyst for improving the team.

My leadership notebook

The following are my handwritten notes illustrating my thoughts and ideas still in development. I’d like to give you a window into my thought process each week, in hopes that it will inspire you to unleash your own creativity and embrace imperfection. You can download them here.