How an organization thinks about itself is largely a function of senior leadership. Self-concept is critical to success at varying periods of the organization's history. This truth is easily observable in sports. Furthermore, it is commonly observable. One team, the unanimous underdog comes onto the field with a wild passion, an almost crazed determination. Their opponents, the prohibitive favorites, seem stuck in low gear. They just cannot seem to find the inner fire for which they have in the past been famous. What happens? Why does a team that is so much "better" suddenly lose to a team they ought to have beaten easily, and which if they played a series might predictably defeat nine out of ten times?
There are all kinds of factors, of course, and no one explanation is sufficient, but I believe the number one answer lies in an organizational communication failure between the coach and the team. Somehow the coaching staff failed to impart the correct self-concept. Many coaches and leaders think this is done by convincing the team they are winners.
That is true in part but there is much more. When this becomes just so much rah rah, when the word "winners" becomes hardly more than a motivational poster, it loses the fire. The team must know what the mission is, must buy into it and must understand and embrace "why" they win, exactly what kind of winners they are. They also have to know who they are and they have to believe it. You might call this the team's internal mythology.
In other words, there are different narratives/myths of victory for different seasons of organizational life. The "underdog" narrative is a passion to prove something. We are tired of being looked down on. This is our chance to show the world. The Masada mentality is heroic defeatism and it won't work. That narrative says, we know we are going to get killed out there tonight but let's do so bravely. Your people have to believe that Rocky really can whip Apollo Creed, that the Bad News Bears will win, that it's David's night because Goliath is doomed. Not just that. Goliath deserves what is about to happen to him. He ought to go down. Your team has to believe it’s their turn to win and Goliath's turn to crumple like a ton of bricks.
Now what about the prohibitive favorites? They need a different narrative/myth to carry them onto the field. The wrong one will sink them. Many teams try exactly the wrong myth. They begin to believe they deserve to win. That is entitlement and it never works in life, or leadership of business. It creates spoiled brats who underestimate passionately hungry underdogs and suffer internal squabbles that erode team unity. Prima donnas are listening to their individual stories, not the organization's tram narrative.
The narrative that works for the perennial winner is the struggle to dominate. How dare they? Who do they think they are? It's not that we deserve to win but we refuse to lose. We hate losing. We simply will not allow our enemy to be the cause of our having that painful reality. Furthermore, any team that tries to inflict losing on us is the enemy. That is is the "myth" that serves the reigning champion who wants to win the crown again and again and again.
The best team is supposed to win. Isn't it? Yes, but what does "best" mean? After all the practicing and the play books and talent evaluations, it may very well be the team that comes armed with the best internal myth that walks off with the victory. The model of the perennial winner, the dynasty coach and team is Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers (c. 1959-1967). He convinced that team they could, should and absolutely must outfight any opponent because they could not bear to lose and could not bear it because losing was anathema. He never told them they deserved to win. He convinced them that losing was for losers who would not "leave it all on the field."
The quintessential underdog coach/leader and team was certainly Herb Brooks and his band of amateurs who were the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team. That team defeated the "unbeatable" Russian national team, went on to beat Finland and won the gold medal. Their victory over Russia was internationally known as the "miracle on ice." Was it a miracle? One sportscaster described it as being the same as team of Canadian college boys defeating the Pittsburg Steelers.
The secret was Herb Brooks narrative that they were a team of destiny and that they were players of destiny. He told them,"You were born to be players. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours." That narrative and a sense of almost desperate national pride was the secret formula of the greatest hockey upset of the 20th Century.
Here are questions every leader needs to ask themselves.
1. What season is my organization in?
2. What wrong narratives are they believing? What dangerous myth are they believing? Do they think they are entitled? Or do they believe themselves to be losers? How do I blast that narrative out of their minds and hearts?
3. What is the narrative/myth that is required at this time in our history?
4. How can I "sell" it to my team? How do I say it? Communicate it? Get them to believe it and buy in? How do I find the strength and energy to keep believing it myself and keep on "selling" it until they receive it?
I believe there is a vast difference between being a knowledgeable coach of talented players and being a passionate and inspiring leader. A coach who is nothing but a technician will seldom coach inspired teams. The great leader is the one who can tell the right story the right way until the team makes it come true.