By Christopher Cudworth
Three meets into the collegiate cross country season, two of our best runners were sidelined with injuries. One had a sore back that would never heal that year. Another had a black toenail that was so painful every stride was a limp. He was at risk for compensatory injuries yet the weeks of training at 80-90 miles were flying past and we could not afford to let up during a competitive series of meets leading up to conference, then regionals and nationals.
It was supposed to be our best season after four years of college track and cross country. Things weren’t going the way we planned. The group of 5 sub-15:00 high school three-milers that had entered freshman year together had not managed to fulfill their potential with a high placing at the national college meet.
Yet thanks to the leadership of a fellow senior who now ranked #1 in the country based on early season times, and my own improvement from 7th to 2nd man, we had a prayer of doing well. Added to the mix were two talented freshman that were playing important roles on the overall team.
In other words, every team depends on individuals to succeed. There is no excusing that fact or trying to run around it. Emphasizing the importance of the “I” in team does not make someone an asshole, a bad teammate or a poor employee.
Sure, if someone genuinely does not care about other people, they are not going to be pleasant to be around. But neither should you assume that everyone with individual aspirations and the drive to excel is going to make a bad team member.
During that college cross country season one of my teammates–the guy with the bad toe who had been our #1 runner the season before, came jogging up behind me between half-mile hill repeats and said, with an urgency in his voice: “You have got to be the man this week. You cannot afford to let down. You’re running great, but we need you to keep going.”
I knew what he meant. The message was clear, but not what you might think. My teammate was not telling me to try to carry the whole team on my shoulders, or worry about anyone else. He wanted me to continue the pursuit of individual success because of the example it set for everyone else on the team. That did not make me an asshole. That made me a leader.
To his considerable credit, that teammate rose to the occasion in that week’s meet. We raced together in the last mile and passed a key opponent in the last 300 yards to claim the invitational victory by only a few points.
It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Being pushed to individual success and recognizing your responsibility for the “i” in team is something you should never forget. Managers or coaches who squelch recognition of individual success for fear that it will somehow demotivate other team members are doing the team no favors.
When competing in a team time trial in cycling, or even participating in a pace line during a weekend group ride, the team or group is ultimately dependent on the quality of individual efforts and the commitment to repeat them. If you ride along thinking the pace makes itself because you are part of a team, the group as a whole will fail. Individuals do count.
And people aren’t stupid. They know who is best at their sport or their job. They also like being recognized if they are the best at what they do. Forcing a team to operate as if it gains nothing from individual efforts is insane. If you want to see people turn into real assholes, watch what they do when you’ve squashed any hopes of individual success. That’s when the real backbiting begins.
No “i” in team? Get real.
You can claim there is no “i” in team all you want. You can also venture the opinion that people who take the lead and speak to that fact are assholes. But there is never a moment when a great team does not depend on the success of the individuals within it.
People who accuse athletes and businesspeople of selfishness when it comes to individual success have no idea what real teamwork really means. Real teamwork comes from wanting to excel as much as the person next to you. For individuals to produce quality effort, thinking and performance requires not discouragement, but encouragement. Telling someone they’re an asshole for trying their best and challenging others to do so is not a form of encouragement.
Quite frequently the people who claim to motivate others by dunning them into a submissive team mentality are actually totalitarians. They may be lacking in personal security and their actual motivation may be fear, jealousy or simple incomprehension of the overall goals of excellence. People who are afraid of real leadership and who can’t keep up with their own obligations, or who are passive/aggressive control freaks afraid for their own position in life are generally the ones who typically call real leaders assholes. You can look it up.
Working together as one
Yes, working together in sports, business and society is important. And yes, in many circumstances we need to keep our egos in check in order to avoid threatening others or being too dominating in our meetings or workouts.
Those are simply qualities we need to develop as functioning members of culture and society. They do not define the entire notion of a team, and what it means to succeed.
Selfish and unselfish
Perhaps you have been called selfish when in fact your real motivations are completely focused the benefit of a group. Then you know how dangerous groupthink can be. It is always important for individuals to be able to discuss and demonstrate their individual motivations, particularly when they hold the potential to benefit the entire group.
Because at the same time, you’ll often hear it said that the success of so many organizations depends on a very few individuals, without whose work the entire enterprise would fail. Well guess what? Those people are the real “i” in team. They are the ones who step it up when the game or the race is on the line. You can count on them. Look to them. Trust them. Respect them as individuals because they understand the real role of the “i” in team. And that’s the get things done.