What Underdog Sports Teams Can Remind Us About Leadership


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Why do established organizations fail to actualize their potential? Or better yet, why do underdogs surprise us with success, sometimes even with a sense of the miraculous?

There is no better representation of that sentiment than the Miracle 1980 Team USA hockey team. Legendary coach Herb Brooks was optimistic about a specific set of players (who weren’t necessarily the most talented) defeating the four-time defending gold medalists the Soviets and capturing the gold medal in Lake Placid.

Long before Jim Collins Good to greatby Simon Sinek Start with Whyby Angela Duckworth scream and that of Jacko Willink Extreme propertywe had exceptional leaders who showed us the path less traveled and what the DNA of success looks like. money ball i miracle are two of my favorite films for this very reason: the apparently shocking, if not miraculous success of these organizations.

These sports stories and authors help inform and remind us that talent, intelligence and experience are certainly important, but ingredients like synergy, culture and heart are paramount. We see it played out over and over again in our favorite underdog sports stories and if we step back, we see it in any organization.

Related: 5 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Professional Sports Teams

Talent and experience are nice

Herb Brooks showed us that “you win with people, not talent,” that the key ingredient is “people with a strong value system,” and recruiting “from a cross-section of different personalities, talents, and playing styles “.

Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane showed us something similar in 2002. His $41 million payroll money ball The team achieved an American League record 20-game winning streak and boasted an identical regular-season winning record (103 wins) as the Yankees’ $125 million payroll. The far less talented A’s put together a unique team and rallied around a no-frills, team-first, get-on-base strategy (which included trading away players without the character or fit for the mission).

Perhaps a lesser-known case study, the Las Vegas Golden Knights NHL expansion franchise entered the league with only the ability to draft unprotected players from current teams. Faced with the challenge of not having the most talented players available, their leadership took the opportunity to pick the right players who fit their team’s mission, culture and system.

In their first year, they went 51-24-7 and lost in the Stanley Cup Final. But from 2018 to 2021, they had winning seasons and trips to the playoffs every year, made two trips to the conference finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Related: 7 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Elite Athletes

Mission, culture and synergy are essential

I have personally experienced success in implementing these imperatives by launching two successful organizations at two very different times in my life: one in business not long ago, and the other in sports in my early 20s. as a hockey coach (two very different scenarios, I know). Fast forward to 2001, I was pursuing my degree in bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and officiating youth hockey as a side job. He had played youth club, junior varsity and varsity hockey, although he had never coached before.

One fateful day, I saw a posting for an inaugural high school program looking for coaches. I interviewed for the head varsity coaching position at the newly formed Lincoln-Way East Hockey Club, knowing full well how aspirational this move was. When I was offered the position, I was equally excited and terrified. To my knowledge, I was the youngest varsity coach in the state — with no coaching experience — and I had to select and coach a roster of players, none of whom were seniors, to go up against much more established programs.

I first picked players personally by character and moved on to several players who had more size and experience. Our mission (and live battle cry before every game) was simple: respect. As the inaugural team, our opponents would naturally underestimate us. This was our fuel. We collectively decided that we would be the hardest working, most impactful and most annoying team to play against. If we did this, the victories would eventually come.

We implemented defensive systems that frustrated the most talented teams – we synergized our collective efforts to become something greater than individually skilled players. In our inaugural season, we won our conference championship. In our third season, we had gone from an under-the-radar inaugural program to 26th in the state, capturing two conference championships along the way.

Fast forward almost 20 years, I was given the opportunity and privilege to build and lead a new organization at my current company Abbott (funnily enough, one of Collins’ companies). Having my previous coaching experience, along with a myriad of business and life lessons, including those in this article, I was optimistic about the right players, the right culture, and the right mission for our organization.

I again hand-picked the right people, exemplified by three incredible managers, to establish the right culture. Together, our entire group aligned with the why of our organizational mission. Despite the immense challenges our group faced in the first year (including launching the group during the pandemic), success inevitably followed.

Related: What sports can teach you about running a business

Align with the mission, sustain with the culture, amplify through synergy

For senior leaders and hiring managers, there are some incredible aspects to be found in these underdog sports stories.

  1. Mission, culture and synergy optimize organizational potential. Whether you are an underdog or a small organization, your authentic leadership of living the purpose-driven mission and hiring a purpose-driven team that is amplified by synergies of diverse perspectives and backgrounds is the key to becoming greater than you are to compete against the biggest teams in the market. Frankly, you have no choice, at least if you want to reach your full potential. If you are an established organization, imagine how high the boat could rise by applying these principles.
  2. Don’t get distracted by talent, tenure or credentials. Experience, advanced degrees and the like are secondary to having the right people who will catalyze a synergy that would otherwise not be there. As leaders, we must seek a diversity of viewpoints, perspectives, and skills that will make the team greater than they are. Always choose the right player (the best fit for the mission, culture and synergy) than the most talented/tenured/experienced player.
  3. Repeat steps one and two. With the right players and the right culture, we must consistently and authentically reinforce our organizational why. Commitment to steps one and two is most strongly expressed by who is hired, fired, and promoted.

It takes courage to choose synergy over skill, character over experience, and the right players over the most talented. But over time, with the right DNA, you get an incredible culture, one where the unique contributions of the right players are amplified. What follows is the ultimate upgrade to a team’s potential. May be miracle then it wasn’t so miraculous after all, just exceptional leadership.



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