Football PlayerLast November, my favorite college football team (the Iowa State Cyclones) shocked the world by upsetting the #2 team in the country, Oklahoma State, in front of a national TV audience. After the game, Iowa State football coach Paul Rhodes gave this rousing victory speech in the locker room:

In his locker room speech, Paul Rhodes talks a lot about the value of “team.” His players were mostly scrappy, hard-working kids from the Midwest, not blue chip recruits, and his team had been widely picked to finish last in the Big 12 Conference.

But instead of having the losing season the experts had predicted, Iowa State overcame all the doubters and defeated a national championship contender, 37-31 in overtime, in front of a deliriously happy home crowd.

How did this happen? And what are some leadership lessons we can learn from Paul Rhodes’ philosophy about successful team effort?

  • The competition isn’t “in here,” it’s “out there.” Too often, business leadership gets a reputation for being all about control, sorting people out, rewarding the stars and punishing the laggards, and constantly balancing various agendas as you navigate the politics of the organization. But in reality, the most successful businesses are not a case of “divide and conquer.” If you really want your small business to grow and prosper, you need to create a spirit of “all in” among your employees. Instead of pitting people against each other, you need people to understand that the real competition is not with their fellow employees, it’s outside the walls of the building.
  • Every player has a role. On every good football team, there are stars, skill players, specialists and role players. There’s only one starting quarterback. Not everyone has the right talents and abilities to be a touchdown-scoring running back or a star wide receiver. The best football coaches know how to cultivate a sense of pride and identity even among the “role players” and “blue-collar guys in the trenches.” Similarly, within your organization, there are people who make more money, who handle higher-value tasks, and there are also lots of supporting personnel who don’t get the glamorous assignments but whose steady, consistent contributions help “move the ball” every day. As a business leader, even as you reward your stars, you also need to encourage your role players. Keep them feeling motivated, and keep ensuring that they share the same sense of purpose. Cultivating strong morale and a sense of team spirit will save your company a lot of money in hiring, recruiting and training costs.
  • Are you the type of coach people want to play for? One of the reasons I love this video is that you can see that the team loves Coach Rhodes. You can see it in their eyes. He has their absolute attention and confidence. Some of the best business leaders share this kind of charisma and ability to inspire the devotion of their team. If your people believe that you are looking out for their best interests, if they believe that you are honest and sincere, if they believe that you will help them shoulder their biggest burdens in the service of a larger cause, then they will follow you anywhere.

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