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Performance High: The Final Four Journey That Put “Team” First

by David Sowinski on

Living in Chicago, I (like many) was captivated by the Loyola Ramblers during their NCAA run this year.  The storyline made for great TV: the timeless allegory of David and Goliath(s), the playful banter between team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt and CBS commentator “Sir Charles” Barkley…what wasn’t to love?!

What made this basketball team unique was the way team members came together when it mattered most. They played with true selflessness: a stark contrast to many of the traditional power programs and star players who can seem more focused on their individual performances and future professional contracts. It was refreshing to see members of Loyola’s team thinking about each other and their shared objective.

In a recent interview with David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, basketball commentator Dick Vitale articulated the personal connection so many of us experienced with this team: “Here are a bunch of kids playing together, with pride and passion, with emotion and feeling, and you can go from a three-star player, which they were, to being a five-star player any given night and that’s what they’ve been doing –  they’ve played like five-star players.” Loyola’s achievement was an inspirational example of a team coming together to perform at its full potential. While sports analogies don’t always hold up when applied to business, Loyola’s journey in the NCAA tournament provides a relevant example for business teams  aspiring to excellence.

Vantage Leadership Consulting has done extensive research on high-performing teams, and we have found five factors that need to be present for teams to elevate their performance from good to great. These teams have a Shared Commitment to Vision and Goals, Shared Accountability for Results, Transparent Communication, Constructive Conflict, and Mutual Respect and Camaraderie. Let’s see how Loyola’s basketball team embodied some of these crucial characteristics during its run to the Final Four.

Shared Commitment to the Goals and Accountability for Results

In our experience, two factors that matter most for teams to perform at the highest level are a Shared Commitment to the Vision and Shared Accountability for Results. Both the goal of winning the championship and the high-pressure nature of the NCAA basketball tournament required  these factors to be in play. Each of Loyola’s players was committed to the cause, focused on a stretch goal, and believed in each other. Case in point: in its five tournament games this year, Loyola had a different leading scorer each time. Thus, the burden to score was not placed on the shoulders of one or two superstars; rather, the team came together and equally shared the responsibility.

Mutual Respect and The Role of the Team Leader

The team’s coach, Porter Moser, had a clear impact on his team’s success. While performance ultimately depends on the team as a whole, Moser set the tone for how his players  worked together. For example, Moser created a “Wall of Culture” in the Loyola locker room – a set of values and principles written on the wall that creates a shared understanding of what excellence means to them.  This is consistent with our research in working with management teams from various industries:  the stronger the leader, the stronger the team.

The results of our research also suggest one of the most impactful influences a leader can have on his or her team is cultivating an environment of Mutual Respect and Camaraderie. In doing so, the leader demonstrates concern for the well-being of the team, creates a climate of support and trust, and encourages others to take risks to foster learning and growth. In return, the team goes above and beyond their normal day-to-day responsibilities to support the efforts of other members and facilitate successful organizational functioning.

Putting the Team First

In an insightful article, Chuck Culpepper from the Washington Post interviewed seven coaches whose teams played Loyola earlier this season on whether they observed anything that could have predicted the team’s tournament surge.  Coaches  largely credited the team’s cohesion and collaboration.  Andre Payne, the coach of Mississippi Valley State, noted that the big difference for this team is their level of camaraderie. “They’ve got so many people in the game that can hurt you. It was hard to identify who we needed to stop. They’re not afraid to give up a good shot for a great shot.” Scott Nagy from Wright State also noted, “You’ve got to have good players, okay? But if you have good players willing to put the team first, and [sic] that’s hard to do in this day and age.” This behavior is consistent with our research that great teams are comprised of members who continually place the goals of the team ahead of individual ones.

In sum, there were undoubtedly many factors that contributed to Loyola-Chicago’s enthralling tournament run.  In my opinion, chief among them was the level of cohesion and trust the team members had for one another, as well as  the nature of the relationship between Coach Moser and the team, such that he became a facilitator of exceptional performance.

Do you see Loyola’s teamwork reflected in your own high-performing teams?  What lessons did you take from their example? Tell us in the comments below!

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