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Creating Culture Requires a Deliberate Approach

Obedience holds players back to simply following direction without the ability and license to make decisions in dynamic situations. It is paralyzing and counterproductive.

An interesting phenomenon has been happening in sports for years – the militarization of athletics. No, this isn’t about marching and haircuts. Those are simple things anyone could copy and would have zero impact on the success of your team. However, for a very long-time coaches have attempted to harness the “warrior ethos” seen in elite military units to develop the discipline, adaptability, resiliency and work ethic that make any team successful.

It makes sense. Sport often mimics the battlefield. Heck, the sport of lacrosse was developed to train young men to be warriors. So coaches use the tactics they think create success – motivational sayings, push-ups, and carrying logs to develop those characteristics that seem to make the warriors they want to emulate successful.

The problem?

Those things aren’t what make Special Operations Forces a success. No one ever did their mission because of some saying they read over the team room, or because they carried a log with their teammates in training (log carrying may make you a better fighter but does not make you a better lacrosse player). They don’t drive on to their objective, despite hardship just because they suffered somewhere else before. You see, the thing is, what makes elite forces elite is much deeper than what you see in movies or on TV.

In our personal experiences as coaches, and in working with teams and organizations, we have found that this specific approach leads to the opposite of the desired outcome. It can lead to obedient teams and organizations, restricting players and ultimately developing a culture that hinders resiliency.

Strict interpretation of the military model creates a culture that depends on capability as compared to developing capacity*. Do you want your people to be creative, innovative and able to respond to, and manage the unknown? If that is your desired outcome, the Special Operations approach is what you desire. Obedience does not develop capacity. Obedience holds players back to simply following direction without the ability and license to make decisions in dynamic situations. It is paralyzing and counterproductive.

Developing capacity in your people or team creates a culture that responds to the unknown, adapts to dynamic situations and is not limited to a script or template. As athletes, coaches and organizations, the challenges we face daily, and in competition, are mostly the unknown. Capability is a learned skill or planned response that is limited to responding to the known. How do you want your people to respond when facing adversity and or situations they do not have a template for? The key is to understand the nuances between a military and Special Operations approach to culture.

What makes Special Operations special is that they have a deliberate culture.

Today’s coaches need to think about, and attack culture in a very different way than generations before. They have to make it real…tangible…deliberate!  Coaches have to stop making culture a buzzword and start making it real. Think about it – the best Special Operations organizations in the world have deliberate cultures that are tangible – actually written down for reference:

  • The Rangers have the Ranger Creed

  • The Navy SEALs have the Navy SEAL Creed

  • The Special Forces have the Special Forces Creed

What guides team and the people associated with it?

If you asked any athlete today, professional, amateur or youth, what aligns their team, they will give you something that resembles a mission statement. Ask that same athlete what helps them achieve their mission or goal, they will most likely tell you the team’s vision, as understood from coach to player. But ask that athlete, what gives them meaning and purpose, what drives them, what makes them stay on that team, they will give you a very ego-centric answer about their desires, or they will hesitate, maybe repeating one of the previous answers, or some esoteric response with little grounded in reality in order to sound like what they believe is a “good teammate”.  Maybe it is how they feel, or maybe they are parroting something they have heard from coaches for years, you won’t know.

The problem – now, and in the future – is that mission and vision statements won’t be enough to get teams to the next level of greatness. And cultures that just “happen” – well you might get lucky once or twice, but to sustain greatness requires a culture that is deliberate.

Mission statements and vision statements are great. Both can have a tremendous impact on your team – mission statements tell you what to do – vision statements tell you how you are going to get there. However, what neither of these addresses is “who” you are, nor the discipline required of the leaders and employees to achieve your goals. What teams want, and need, are athletes to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. They want this internalized by all their players, so they can act, not react, on the fly, in unpredictable circumstances, and develop solutions independently, that meet the intent of the team and its coaches.

The paradigm shift that is needed is something that allows coaches to go beyond the draconian rules, procedures and metrics that have ruled for a very long time. Coaches need something that provide principles on how to lead, and how a team, their team, should operate and make decisions that provide alignment and meaning to their players. The solution is a culture statement that tells the team who they are, which will help them in what they do and how they do it. Why a culture statement and not just values?

We are all raised with certain values.  Athletic coaches also want to instill certain values in their players. Additionally, most of us tend to treat certain values, such as “integrity,” as absolute, and judge any decision that violates those values as bad; we require repentance, punishment or additional development for any breach of our values.

What’s the problem with that? Well, not everyone sees these values the same way. And compounding the problem – our individual definition of a value is the metrics that we, not only judge ourselves, but more frequently, others by.

Teams and organizations are made up of members from varying backgrounds, upbringings and mindsets. Each of these factors impacts the way in which these individuals define their values. One team member may have a completely different definition of a certain value than another. Someone from New York City will probably have a different idea of courtesy than someone from Savannah, Ga. One of your people may be willing to compromise their values before another member might. Again, in our experience as coaches and working with organizations this is a challenge every leader must understand and manage.

Culture is about synthesizing conflicting values to provide guidelines and direction as to how you act and interact with-in your organization and as a representative of your organization.

The point is, values aren’t absolute and don’t occur in a vacuum. We have to prepare and train people, to think through how to apply their values. We need to put values in context, and we do that through creating a deliberate culture. Following your culture isn’t a matter of being obedient to a set of rules. It is about being disciplined, which is doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons, regardless of the consequences.

Though every collective group has a culture, most are not deliberate. The rules are imagined in each individual’s head and applied as they are understood. Sometimes this works, and organizations can be successful. However, without a deliberate culture, we are asking our people to “play without a rulebook,” setting them (and the team) up for failure. A deliberate culture provides a set of principles and agreed upon values for the group and puts them in context so they can be applied appropriately for that organization—and its people’s—success

Athletic teams and organizations void of a deliberate culture will struggle to sustain a high level of success. Each of us can come up with an example of a group with a positive culture achieving at a level well above their ability. Likewise, we all know of groups with toxic cultures that breakdown and underachieve even though they have the capacity to succeed.

Good culture can happen organically but isn’t sustainable unless it is deliberate. Culture is created by the people and driven by the leaders. If it is created by the people, it is theirs. They will own it and therefore will embrace it. It becomes the guideline for how they conduct their business every day. It defines who they are and how they want to be perceived. As a leader, it provides you with a tool to better lead your people and drive a culture that where people are committed. It supports you in managing the actions and decisions of your group and provides clear and precise expectations. Consider the possibilities and level that your team, organization and people can achieve if you as the leader can foster and lead a deliberate culture.

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