In writing Do Hard Things, I got to talk to and research some of the best (and worst) teams on the planet. I got to hear what worked, and didn’t, from some of the best athletes on the planet. What I discovered is there are two routes to creating tough teams. The quick route, utilizing power and control to shape how your subordinates act and behave. Or the slow route, utilizing trust and vulnerability to fulfill people’s basic psychological needs. The quick route can be tempting. It’s easier to implement. It involves utilizing fear and power to mold the team. It doesn’t require extensive knowledge or understanding of your craft, as individuals are motivated by fear. In the short term, it can create a cohesive team that works together, but it’s built on a faulty foundation. One that will break and split apart when adversity occurs or the power dynamics shift.
The slow route relies on something else: building trust and belonging. This route is about cultivating relationships where one’s power is earned, not given by a title or position. When we earn trust and respect, our power is of the longer lasting variety. The kind that stands firm even if we go through bumps, bruises, and losses. It doesn’t crack upon the first sign of difficulty. This leadership style is built to last, to create toughness for the long haul. It comes from something real.
The traditional view of a leader who creates tough individuals is of a stern, demanding, and forceful one. Of an individual who holds the power and keeps their subordinates accountable for their behaviors and actions. Think of it as the drill sergeant style of leading. But research shows that contrary to this popular view, this style of tough-guy leadership might not be the way to go.
When people hear information that contradicts their long held beliefs, the inclination is to get defensive and poke holes in the countering argument. Am I saying that leaders should be overly friendly, a “players coach” with low standards and expectations? Or that being strict and demanding doesn’t have a place? How do we square the example of Greg Popovich, who by all accounts demands a lot out of his players, but has created a tough, disciplined team and culture?
It’s not about being nice versus demanding. It’s about where your respect comes from. Is it from a place of fear or knowledge? Do people follow you because they respect your knowledge and ability to get them better, or do they follow simply because of the power differential? Because you can punish or change their trajectory in an instant? Where respect comes from shapes whether trust and bonding can occur. Coaches can be demanding without fear. They can be rule focused without pushing punishment.
Perhaps even more important is answering the question of does the person in charge care and have an individual’s best interests at heart? Leaders can be strict and demanding if at the end of the day an individual knows that they are doing so to help. If subordinates understand that they aren’t going to be used as pawns to improve the status of the man or women in charge, but to help the team as a whole, then they are much more likely to see such standards in a positive light.
In contrasting what researchers call autocratic and servant leaders, Christopher Hammer noted, “Where traditional models of leadership are focused on the leader influencing the subordinate to achieve a goal, servant leadership focuses on developing the relationship between the leader and follower which in turn develops a mutual trust and respect.”** It’s about knowing that you give a shit. That you are on the journey together. That you aren’t going to use your subordinates, stab them in the pack, or abuse the power that you have. That you care. Truly caring is the key to molding tough teams.
**Mental toughness, servant leadership, and the collegiate distance runner. Christopher S Hammer, Eastern Washington University.
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