The business culture we live and work in has “softwared” us for mediocrity. To be mediocre is to fall far short of our potential. The startlingly gifted “hardware” we each have—a body, mind, heart and spirit—is rarely called upon to do much more than fulfill a job description, the “software” handed to us by the organization. The vast untapped capabilities within us too often atrophy.
Superb leaders know this, and that’s why they seek to unleash the potential of every team member. The command-and-control Industrial Age software deceives many organizations into believing that wealth lies in capital and equipment—not in people. Great leaders realize that they have the power to rewrite that software.
In 1979, the U.S. Olympic Committee hired college coach Herb Brooks to lead the U.S. hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. For 20 years, the Soviet Union had dominated Olympic hockey with a high-powered, highly cohesive team that simply bulldozed any competition. The Soviets were the best hockey team in the world, but Brooks was determined to beat them.
The team he assembled had little promise of doing it. They were college students who had never played together. Rivalries simmered among them. Few of them had professional ambitions. And Brooks had only seven months to mold them into a world-class team.
No one expected Brooks to compete with the powerful hockey teams of the Eastern Bloc, least of all his players. Most of them were happy just to be going to the Olympics. But Brooks intended to win. To do that, he resolved to unleash the great potential of each team member.
How was it done? First, he chose his team carefully, looking not for superstars but for people who could work well together. He set a very clear goal: beat the world’s best. He emphasized physical conditioning: “We may not be the best team at the Olympics, but we’ll be the best conditioned.” He emphasized mental conditioning, requiring quick and accurate playmaking from the team.
But most of all, he connected to the spirit and the heart of each player. “Ten, 20, 30 years from now, you don’t want to have left anything on the table,” he told them. He asked for everything they could give.
At first, they weren’t too willing to do it. At an exhibition game in Norway, the team lost, and Brooks knew the reason: They were unfocused, fooling around, more interested in the party after the game than in the game itself. At the end of the game, he blew his whistle, signaling a practice. It was night, the ice arena was emptying, and they were turning off the lights. Nevertheless, Brooks insisted that his team practice. “If we’re not going to work during the game,” he told them, “we’ll work now.” And they worked and worked in the dark until they dropped from exhaustion.
Brooks taught each member of his team how to pay the price of excellence. Over several grueling months, these college boys from all over America caught his vision. Instead of a disparate group of players from different universities with different life goals, they became a lean, powerful team defined by one wildly important goal.
On Feb. 22, 1980, the U.S. hockey team faced the “Mighty Red Machine” from the Soviet Union. Although unmatched in skill and experience, the Soviets were beaten that night 4-3 by sheer heart and determination. The United States went on to win the Olympic gold medal in what has been called a “miracle on ice.”
The miracle that Brooks produced that night unleashed nothing less than the full potential of his team members. He conjured up the best they could give in all four key dimensions of their being—physically, mentally, emotionally and, perhaps most important of all, spiritually.
Do the leaders in your organization call up that kind of energy? Are they coasting with no particular end in mind, taking little interest in the workers? Are they scurrying from one crisis to another, staying busy but unfocused? Are they leading lean, vigorous teams totally focused on the mission-critical goals? Are they tapping the full powers of mind, body, heart and spirit of every team member?
Stephen R. Covey, Ph.D., is co-founder of FranklinCovey and author of the best-selling “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The 8th Habit.” He can be reached at email@example.com.