Despite generations of the collective intelligence of humanity and the boom of information technology, we still do not know a lot about the most potent three-pound organ there is… the human brain. In his book, The Leader’s Brain, Michael Platt, Director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, discusses how brains can work more effectively to build stronger teams, better leaders, and improve outcomes. He says, “brains that fire together wire together.” He explores how the Miracle on Ice from the 1980 Winter Olympics may not have been as much of a miracle after all. How did Herb Brooks, US coach, take a college-age team to win gold against the Soviet powerhouse? He looked to create synchrony, also known as chemistry. There were three characteristics Coach Brooks pursued to build his team.
First, he conducted a series of psychological assessments. Specifically he:
- Identified mentally tough players that possessed complementary temperaments. Mental toughness was the foundational characteristic Brooks sought to build the team on. Ironically, several of the players selected came from the same college team at the University of Minnesota.
- Next, Coach Brooks believed that players needed a common conflict or a shared struggle. To do this, he made practices, training, and his interactions with the players difficult. His theory was that the players’ dislike of him would foster greater chemistry. Remember, he took time to learn about their personalities and temperaments.
- Brooks did not shy away from the facts or truth during these authoritarian practices. It was a fact that his team was the underdog, in no way expected to medal, let alone win a gold medal. But the truth was, they had the mental strength, physical prowess, and team chemistry to win! And he supported and instilled a belief in the players that they really had the chemistry to win. The rest is history, recorded as a ‘Miracle on Ice’, with the U.S. defeating the Soviet Union, 4-3.
We can learn from Coach Brooks that successful leadership requires building successful teams. And successful teams can be built by being intentional about the qualities and characteristics we need.
For Brooks, that was mental toughness.
It may be something different for your team or organization, but it’s key that you identify what it is in each season and life cycle. Complementary personalities help when organizing, assigning, and executing tasks. Brooks sought a particular temperament type in the players that were an extension of the mindsets and prior experiences and connections.
Next, creating a clear, compelling direction is critical for all leaders. People need and respond to vision. What was clearer or more compelling than college-aged men going to the Olympics, competing and winning gold? Leaders must constantly navigate the challenging seas of the day to direct employees toward shared, clear, and compelling definitions of success. Though I would not advise anyone to try Coach Brooks’, you can hate me for the chemistry approach, we should CHOOSE to allow conflict, controversy, and difficulty to make us stronger and better as individuals, teams, and organizations. Don’t shy away from the facts or the truth. Tests can become testimonies. Trials can become triumphs. Yes, rose bushes have thorns, but they have roses too.
Like Coach Brooks, leaders instil and inspire belief. On the morning of the Miracle, he said, “It’s meant to be. This is your moment, and it’s going to happen.” What is your it? What is the ‘Miracle on Ice’ you are facing?
I echo these words of Coach Brooks to you:
“It’s meant to be. This is your moment, and it’s going to happen.”
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