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  • Waldemar Kohl, Founder, Kohl Consulting

The Heart and Soul of an Ideal Team

Lessons from my son’s championship basketball team

I’ve won some big games in my sports career. High school sports, that is. And no, I didn’t win them on my own – the team I was on pulled out the win, and sometimes in spectacular fashion. I’ll never forget our semi-final basketball game against the International School of Brussels. After an officiating error, three final seconds were put back on the clock – just enough time for my friend Sean to hit a half-court shot to win by one. Jubilation, celebration, and a sense of intense connection and oneness with my team and fans! I’m sure you can relate – either as a player, family member or fan. There’s nothing quite like it.

And then I experienced coaching …

Last winter I had the privilege of coaching my son’s basketball team, the Portsmouth Christian Academy Eagles. I had coached them the year before, which was fun, but the team wasn’t as connected, nor did they all share a hunger for team results. Last January, during the first practice, my assistant coach, Scott, and I knew we had something special. Little did I know how much joy we all would experience over the next 2½ months, not to mention the lasting lessons of what a truly cohesive team can accomplish.

As principal consultants with The Table Group, we help executives and their teams master the disciplines of organizational health. It all starts with cohesion, or behavioral alignment, of their core leadership team. But how does a leader know if she has employees who can truly get aligned and cohesive? In his book, The Ideal Team Player, our founder Patrick Lencioni explains that in an increasingly team-oriented world there are three simple yet critical virtues: being humble, hungry and smart. It was shortly after the Eagles’ championship game win on February 1st that a lightbulb went off for me: I had just experienced the joy and impact of a team made up of ideal team players!

What is an ideal team player (ITP)? And what does it look like when you’re part of a team that is comprised entirely of ITPs?

Let’s start with some definitions:

  • Humble = works for the good of the team, shares credit for successes, and responds well to criticism.

  • Hungry = a strong work ethic and the willingness to take initiative.

  • Smart = Interpersonally smart. The smart person has good intuition about people, listens well, and knows how to relate to others.

Please note: The requirement is not perfection in all three virtues – we all have bad days. However, if any team member has a significant deficit in any one virtue, the team (and results) will suffer.

Often, a team is comprised of ITPs with the exception of one or two members who will hold a team back from being cohesive and aligned. But, when a team is made up of all ITPs, it has an immense potential to fire on all cylinders.

When you have all Ideal Team Players

The boys on my basketball team had a special bond. They loved and respected each other. They challenged each other to constantly improve and to never give up. And, they were Ideal Team Players. I saw their humility play out in many ways –from our lead scorer, Connor, being open about a weakness or apologizing for voicing frustration on the court, to the genuine excitement of the entire team when a teammate was called from the bench to make a contribution. It was all about the team.

The impact of these boys’ collective “hunger” was inspiring and led to several 4th quarter wins. Our starting point guard, Wade, suffered a knee sprain mid-season and missed five games. Yet his commitment to his teammates and desire to win drove him to attend every practice, inspiring us in huddles and yelling encouragement from the bench during games. During the championship when our two best players were in foul trouble, I called our youngest player, Ben, off the bench to stop our opponent’s top scorer. As was the case all season and with every player, he took on his mission with drive and purpose. His teammates cheered him on as he played his heart out (and, yes, closed him down!).

Interpersonal smarts may not be as pronounced in 12- to 14-year-old boys, but this team had a unique love for each other that showed up in many ways. Although skill levels varied considerably between players, there was complete equity on the court. An open man meant a pass – no hesitation. How common is that in sports today?! One of my favorite memories during the season, was after games in the locker room when players took turns calling out each other’s contributions with hoots and hollers!

The leader is a team member also

As a leader, your primary job is to build a healthy, cohesive and aligned team. That requires team members who are humble, hungry and smart. Unfortunately, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. If just one member of the team significantly (and consistently) lacks just one of these core virtues, the performance of the entire team suffers. And don’t forget, you are also a member of the team.

The Eagles glided through January with considerable momentum and confidence. We had beaten every team in the league and were already imagining an undefeated season. Then we lost our first game. The next day we lost again, at home. My disappointment (with how we played), and my anger (at myself for not being a better coach) made me realize something was off kilter. Both of our competitors had adjusted their game to neutralize our offense, and I didn’t have an answer. After a few days of internal wrestling, I realized I had made things too much about me. I called the high school Eagles coach for advice and then asked him join our next practice. He taught us a much better motion offense which could penetrate a strong zone defense. This new strategy was key to our ultimate victory. I, as the leader, needed to add humility to my hunger and smarts.

During the championship game, nerves and emotions were running high. We started off poorly. We missed easy shots, struggled on defense, and then Connor got his third foul called! At the half we were down by four. As we had done all season, the team rallied as a unit, and the second half saw us firing on all cylinders with every member of the team playing his part. We won by 15 and the celebration went on for days!

Winning is fun. Winning as a team – where there’s trust and respect across the line-up – that’s a whole different level of joy and fulfillment!

If you want your work to be more fulfilling, and if you want to drastically improve your odds of success, make sure your team is full of Ideal Team Players. But be sure to start by assessing yourself: are you humble, hungry and smart?


By Waldemar Kohl, Founder, Kohl Consulting

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