The Leaders Notebook

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Team Magic: Sometimes It Just Happens

June 9th, 2009 · No Comments · Team Notes

Sometimes it just happens.  No ropes course, no offsite, no formal launch and not even a coach! (gasp).  This example is not a corporate team and takes me dangerously close to being classified as a “cat” blog.  But I have always thought that there was learning everywhere if we are willing to look for it.

Ouachita Trail TeamI have just returned from 4 days on the Ouachita Trail with my son and a good friend and his son.  Our party consisted of: Two long time backpackers whose extensive experience in the woods was dated by 20 years.  One teen with very recent overland trip experience (thanks to his summer camp) and the best equipment available (thanks to his generous grand-dad.  Thanks John!)  One teen for whom this was a first.  So here are a few of my observations about team work that would make Jon Katzenbach proud.

The outcome is more important than any member’s personal role. Backpacking can be breathtaking.  We saw snakes, tarantula, deer, turkey, turtles, and a bear.  (Yes, a black bear wandered by about 25 feet away and never even looked at us.  Best estimate- about 350 lbs.)  But backpacking is also mundane.  Set camp, break camp, unpack, repack, cook, clean, find water, etc.  Not once was there any response from any team member except wade in and get it done.  Even our beginner simply asked “What can I do?” whenever there was work to be done.

maxotLeadership passes to the person best suited to lead. OK- I have to admit that I was proud at the trail-head when we were all geared up and my son, who has the most recent trail experience just sort of looked around and said “Everyone good?”  And then, without either ceremony or any need to be in charge, he just set off down the trail.  For most of our on the trail time, he was the person who set the pace, cleared spider webs and kept us on the path.  Everyone shared the pace and we adjusted, but it was clear that Max was comfortable on the trail.  Others had their moment as well.  Since I had done the research and planning, I was best set to track progress and watch our water stores.  Martin- the other adult was most adept at wildlife tracking and absolutely just waded in to get things going when there was camp work to be done.  And Sam, who was our beginner, was clearly aware that this was not his time to lead and simply participated with good cheer.  This is a kid who is a natural leader in many areas of his life, so his lack of need to have his moment was also inspiring.

Resilience is everything. Our biggest challenge was that there was not as much water on the trail as we had anticipated.  More than once, a group discussion was needed to discuss our options based on where we knew or though fresh water could be had.  The answer was not always obvious, but through iterations of discussion, we came to solutions that mostly worked.  In the end, the trip did not look like we had thought it would; however, our ability to adjust is what made it a success instead of a disaster.

FSP SunsetThe team vision must be strong enough to take the team through hard times. I wish I had picture of the wildlife we encountered.   But this was a phone-free experience by agreement of the team. The journey itself was the compelling vision that the team needed to slog through forests of poison ivy, squadrons of mosquitos, armies of ants and ticks.  But as with all teams, the vision was the reason for dealing with hardship, and deal we did.  The image to the right (taken from the top of Flat Side Pinnacle) was taken on our last night out when by consensus we decided we needed at least one picture to remind us why.  This, along with the memory of the bear, is what is now sustaining us through sore hips and shoulders not to mention a gazillion bug bites.

Sometimes, an individual has to take one for the team. On several occasions, in order to make things work, one person had to take on a difficult or unpleasant task to make things work.  One evening there was a 4 mile (round trip) walk to a spring to get water.  On another, we had two members not feeling well while we had to get camp broken.  And there was always the question of who had water that was purified and how much who could carry.  Given that it was hot and we were all food for Arkansas’ rich array of insect life, this could have been fodder for petulance and short tempered bickering.  Not one instance.

Teams happen when the outcome is more important than individuals, and when team members are each committed to the success of members of the team.  Add to that excitement about the vision, and a willingness to collaborate when things get hard, and it all applies to either a back country trip of 4 days or a major project team.   For more on teams, get a copy of Jon Katzenbach’s The Wisdom of Teams or Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team– or just plan for a 4 oR 5 day back country trip and see what works!

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