The One Leadership Lesson All Great Teams Embrace

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Essays, Letters to Miscellanies

The best leadership lessons I have ever learned were in the United States Marine Corps, I just did not realize, at the time, how valuable they would be later in life. We were taught in training to have both self-awareness AND situational awareness or “SA” for short as it is called in the military. We were trained observers — searching for signals in the noise. Processing speed matters. If you can Observe-Orient-Decide-Act and repeat that loop faster than your opponent, then you take the upper hand. This dual awareness is the key to kickstarting this decision cycle. This dual awareness is what separates great teams from mediocre teams.

Having one form of awareness and not the other can lead to serious consequences. We all know what it is like to have a boss or manager who is quick to observe and critique everyone else’s actions, but who seldom holds up the mirror to look at themselves. We are also familiar with the colleague or teammate that is so completely absorbed by their own tasks and achievements, that they have no clue how what they are doing fits or doesn’t fit with the broader team and bigger goals. It is only through doing both, oscillating between self and situational awareness, that we can take the best course of action, together and more quickly. Dual awareness is the essence of effective team leadership.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy, who have published and lectured extensively on leadership, summarize this concept of dual awareness well in a Harvard Business Review article titled A Survival Guide for Leaders:

The ability to maintain perspective in the midst of action is critical to lowering resistance. Any military officer knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, especially in the “fog of war.” Great athletes must simultaneously play the game and observe it as a whole. We call this skill “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back from the action and asking, “What’s really going on here?”

Our capacity to be simultaneously a player and a coach, to be both on the balcony and in the dance, is our capacity to reflect in the middle of the action — to check and adjust course rapidly. Think of it as life as an improv actor. How else can you improve your own behavior and ability to influence others in real time? How else can you stay a step ahead of the changing environment around you? Dual awareness is the foundation of adaptability and adaptability is not only the key to survival, but the key to long term, repeat success.

In a speech delivered in 1963 by LSU business professor Leon Megginson, he gave the following summary of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection:

Yes, change is the basic law of nature. But the changes wrought by the passage of time affects individuals and institutions in different ways. According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Applying this theoretical concept to us as individuals, we can state that the civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself.

Not everyone is aware enough to adapt. Many individuals, teams, and organizations that don’t adapt or don’t adapt quickly enough, don’t last very long or just bumble along. Michael Crichton, in his sci-fi thriller, The Lost World, paints a bleak picture of humanity absent awareness:

What makes you think human beings are sentient and aware? There’s no evidence for it. Human beings never think for themselves, they find it too uncomfortable. For the most part, members of our species simply repeat what they are told-and become upset if they are exposed to any different view. The characteristic human trait is not awareness but conformity, and the characteristic result is religious warfare. Other animals fight for territory or food; but, uniquely in the animal kingdom, human beings fight for their ‘beliefs.’ The reason is that beliefs guide behavior which has evolutionary importance among human beings. But at a time when our behavior may well lead us to extinction, I see no reason to assume we have any awareness at all. We are stubborn, self-destructive conformists. Any other view of our species is just a self-congratulatory delusion. Next question.

I don’t agree entirely with Crichton’s character’s critique of mankind. While blind conformity and uninformed beliefs are a clear and present danger to our survival, especially today, what gives me great hope is that even the most stubborn humans can change. When a team or an organization comes together and embraces dual awareness, individual egos melt away and sustainable collective success becomes the norm.

One of the greatest examples of this is the 1990’s Chicago Bulls before they became 6-time world champions. The award-winning documentary mini-series, The Last Dance, Episode 4 covers this beautifully:

Prior to the 1990 season, Michael Jordan was the league’s leading scorer for 3 straight years and the only Bull at the time on the All-Star team, BUT they got eliminated during the playoffs for the last two years. In 1990, head coach Doug Collins was replaced by assistant Coach Phil Jackson who had a radically different philosophy. He transformed Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls from a collection of individuals into a championship team. Jordan wasn’t a fan of Jackson at first. Jordan said:

He was coming in to take the ball out of my hands. Doug put the ball in my hands. Everybody has an opportunity to touch the ball, but I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to have the ball with five seconds left. That’s not equal opportunity offense, that’s f — ing bulls — .

Jordan was told by an assistant coach that “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” to which “His Airness” replied, “there’s an ‘I’ in win.” Eventually, Jordan came around on the idea, and it helped to propel Scottie Pippen into a new role full of production in the Bulls offense. He made his All-Star Game debut in 1990 as a result, and successfully transitioned into a “point forward.” “That’s a special thing to have happen,” Jackson said of Jordan’s change of heart, and understanding that he didn’t have to have the ball in his hands every possession. “My energy started to gear towards my teammates and pushing them to excel,” Jordan said, eventually leading into a closer relationship with Pippen, inevitably turning both into stars in the process.

“It was time for us to become the top team in the game,” Pippen said. In 1991, the Bulls did just that, sweeping the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals in a convincing fashion. In the ’91 NBA Finals against LA, Jackson told Jordan to stop forcing shots and to start feeding the rock elsewhere, specifically in the direction of a wide-open John Paxson, to get their points where they can. While everybody expected Jordan to try and win it on his own, Jackson convinced Jordan to roll with a philosophy that Jordan himself wasn’t a fan of, and it inevitably won them the series, topping it all off with a 108–101 win in Los Angeles. This was the start of their first championship three-peat and the rest is history.

Phil Jackson, who had won two NBA championships as a player, helped Michael Jordan develop his own player-coach dual awareness. If Michael wanted to win team championships, not just personal scoring titles and All-Star team invites, then he needed to step up on the balcony and see the bigger picture of how his ball hogging and focus on personal achievements was hurting his team’s chances of winning even bigger. I am certain, from my own experience, there are many organizations out there in the business world that have their equivalents of the individual All-Star Michael Jordan that has not yet embraced the dual awareness required to help the entire enterprise become a dynasty. The first step is stepping back and opening your eyes.

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