Everyone has their favourite Olympic event. For many it’s the 100m sprint as the fastest men on earth hurtle down that tiny corridor to victory and fame. But for me, amidst all of the individual events that characterise the Olympics, the event I look forward to the most is the 4 X 100m relay. These are often the final events in the track schedule – the pinnacle of the stadium show. I might be revealing too much about myself if I say that the reason I like the relays so much is because often world-class athletes are made to look like school children: fumbling the batons, running past each other and just generally falling apart. It’s like watching a motor race just to see the accidents. And accidents happen regularly in relays.

The reason is obvious. It’s the same reason that many sports teams fail to reach their expected potential: they don’t know how to act as a team. A group of highly talented individuals is not a team. A group of people all brilliant at what they do as individuals can still fail if they do not work together effectively. Over and over again, the world of sport shows this to be true.

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, and one of the greatest athletes to ever play any sport, once said:

“There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

What is true for sport is equally true in today’s workplace. In our complex, fast-moving, technology-driven world, collaboration and team have never been as important as they are now. Of course, there are many different types and forms of teamwork. We’re increasingly being required to work in virtual teams, separated by space and time zones. Yet, the essence always remains: teamwork is the art of joining others in pursuit of a common goal.

Teams don’t just happen

Actually, it’s more than just joining. We don’t join a team. We become a team. And becoming a team requires hard work, commitment and sacrifice.

Just as the 4 X 100m relay athletes have to put some real effort into becoming a team, and need to learn a few new skills to help them do so, we also need to work hard to build our teams in the office.

It requires that we discover our own strengths, and play to them. It will need to agree together on where each of our strengths lie, and agree to sometimes step back out of the limelight to allow someone else to contribute their best efforts. It will take learning new skills, especially “soft” skills of communication (by which I really mean listening), empathy, understanding and connection. And it will mean that we put the good of the team above our own advancement.

It’s that last one that is at the heart of it all.

We really do need to believe that we only each succeed as individuals when the team succeeds in its goals. We need to act in ways that are consistent with that belief.

It might be worthwhile, as we head towards the Olympics of 2012, for you and your team to take some time out to use this metaphor of a relay team to help frame a conversation about how you can become less like individual super stars, and more like a well oiled team that is able to sprint towards the finish line with victory as your prize.

Credit goes to Mike Henry of the Lead Change Group for inspiring these thoughts.

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