The Power of One

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Well hello there, fall. That came fast! I hope you all had a fine summer, with a vacation or two in there. I spent some of those long days ruminating over the power of culture and team. This blog is no stranger to those discussions. See, most recently, Ministers of Culture, the recommended listening list from last year and Rethinking the Mission, in Ski Racing for quite a bit on both topics. (I’ll be throwing you lots of links, but I promise it’s good stuff).

I’m one of many voices in this conversation, as the awareness of, and desire for, healthy culture in today’s sports environment grows. This is particularly true in ski racing, which, despite being an individual sport, relies heavily on team dynamic. I’ve recently been blown away by what some programs and schools are doing to reinforce and reinvigorate their cultures, because they acknowledge that culture is dynamic and ever-evolving.

To play a small part in encouraging those efforts, I’ve teamed up with Peggy Shinn to do some “Champion Culture” talks. Peggy wrote about the power of positive culture and a strong team in her well-timed book World Class, the Making of the US Women’s Nordic Team, which I reviewed here for Skiing History. In the process of mulling over our own experiences, observations and interviews, and reviewing a wealth of articles and podcasts on the topic, something noteworthy bubbled to the surface: It is the profound influence one teammate or player can have on an entire team.

This hit home while listening in on some interviews with Norwegian athletes and coaches. In the interviews, credit for the enviable culture of the Norwegian Team—grounded in hard work, humility and a commitment to each other— went to a succession of strong individuals who embraced the culture, modeled it, and passed it down. This chain ran from Jagge and Furuseth, to Kjus, Aamodt and Stiansen, to Svindal, and on to Jansrud and Kilde. As one coach explained, “The national team prioritized culture, and the coaches backed it up, but it really took hold because individual athletes intuitively understood the importance of it, and became key role models in developing and perpetuating the culture.”

Jessie Diggins, making her mark on the fan base. Photo © Reese Brown

One story that illustrated the point, was when Aksel Lund Svindal was leading a promotional camp for young ski racers that started before the lifts opened. When the lifts opened to the general public, a long line formed, and the kids continued entering at the front of the line. Svindal immediately corralled them to the end of the line and said “Now we all wait in line.”  With that one gesture, the kids understood a key part of the Norwegian Team culture. Nobody is “too cool” to play by the rules.

When I recently interviewed Erica Hess for an upcoming article in Skiing History magazine, I was similarly struck by the credit she gave each one of her teammates. “Everyone on the team was important,” explains Hess. “The other girls needed me for the example but I needed them to go forward. I did not want to be on my own. I liked the team and I needed them.” The Swiss team that coalesced around Hess (Nations Cup winners, seven years straight) was truly remarkable in the success not only of its superstars but also of the many supporting players who rose up to score victories of their own.

The power of the alpha athlete, to both set an example for teammates and telegraph team culture to the outside world, is huge. The responsibility is huge as well, and top performers aren’t always best suited to also take on the role of team leader. In fact, as Sam Walker detailed in The Captain Class, the best team leaders are often athletes who are not the superstars and do not seek the spotlight. These athletes are the communicators and connectors, who are not afraid to be outspoken to authority and brutally honest within the group. They may be among the “water carriers” or, in cycling parlance, “domestiques,” and they may or may not develop into top performers themselves, but they play an absolutely critical role in the success of the team and its individual stars.

Leaders and stars are but two of the many important roles on a team. There may be the jokester who keeps things light, the workhorse who keeps the bar high, the innovative Rebel, the Caretaker, the Organizer, the Mediator, the Energizer, etc, etc… Whatever the roles, each brings something to the mix to make the team richer, stronger and totally unique. Even the Primadonna or the Whiner bring some redeeming qualities while also making the team more resilient and tolerant. The point is, when a team works together, has each other’s backs, and is working in the same direction (I’m looking at you, #theshiver), the sum of these diverse individuals is way more than the parts.

A few members of “The Shiver” the team within the Team that made waves with good vibes.

Any talk about culture will lead to the same refrain: “It has to come from the top.” For culture to take hold and endure one person, in a position to set an organizational tone, can make or break it. An inspiring speaker on the topic of how coaches can do that is Wade Gilbert. His book Coaching Better Every Season looks at coaching in four “moments” namely the Pre Season, In Season, End of Season and Post Season. Preseason, which is right now for skiers, is about envisioning, about articulating the “why” of your team. That leads to establishing standards and expectations, mutual understandings of what really matters to you as a group.

As Gilbert puts it, these are not so much “Best Practices” (which are too rigid to apply across all organizations), as “Best Principles,” created to reflect what works best for you as a team, and as a sport. When these best principles are modeled by the team leaders, they spread like a virus, without the need for slogans or rules. As a survivor and observer of teams with far too many righteously wielded, yet completely hollow slogans, and enough rules to feel like a police state, these observations perked me right up. Gilbert notes that great programs and leaders don’t have a lot of rules. What they do have are lots of standards. How you uphold them and adhere to them, becomes your culture. And that would be…

Lofty values are all well and good, but it’s the behaviors that align with those values that demonstrate team culture. In other words, it’s not what you say you believe in—it’s what you actually do. The Famed New Zealand All Blacks use the slogan, “Sweeping the Shed,” because every player, from rookie to MVP, cleans up the locker room at the end of the day. As with Svindal waiting in line with the kids, seeing the entire roster of All Blacks, players and coaches, unloading the team bus together conveys much about the underlying culture.

And now back to Norway, because every discussion of good team culture seems to lead back to Norway. Strong teams welcome and nurture the next generation, by making efforts to share the wealth rather than protect their positions. Through the course of a year, Norwegian athletes and coaches spend time with the teams below them and above them, because the team sees the exchange between groups as an important link in establishing and maintaining their culture. When younger athletes see best principles in action, watch the superstars, the leaders and the many supporting players work together with confidence and humility, respect and honesty, individual goals and shared purpose, they’ll naturally learn what the culture is all about, and envision how they can contribute.

LOOKING FOR MORE? My last year’s list of reading and listening is a mere smattering of all that is out there. Check out Wade Gilbert’s teachings, which abound on the interwebs, or hunker in with The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. If you have suggestions, bring ‘em on and spread the good word(s). To all the programs and coaches who are actively working on building their culture and creating a strong team, good on ya and keep at it. As you well know, the work is never done. To everyone who hopes it will just happen, it’s time to walk the talk and make it happen!






4 thoughts on “The Power of One”

  1. Excellent Edie,
    Spot on!
    It always seems like the teams that are most successful are the ones that can check their ego’s at the door and have a culture of positivity.

    • That’s the truth! Humility is a biggie. It’s a broken record to keep calling out the Norwegians. but it’s part of their culture to poke fun at themselves and each other. I don’t think they get too caught up in believing their own press releases! Thanks for reading Bruce, and for always keeping it fun on the hill.

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