Over the past few years, team leaders have had to cope with a lot: whether it’s adapting to remote work practices, keeping their remote team motivated, going through layoffs and furloughs, or more recently, grappling with the transition to hybrid work. It’s been a pretty wild ride that challenged all of us to become more flexible and adaptable to change.
The question is, how do we become great team builders that handle adversity and major challenges that we face day in and day out while inspiring our teams to do the same?
1. Back Up But Never GIVE Up!
I was always inspired by the Chuck Yeager quote, “you do what you can for as long as you can, and when you finally can’t, you do the next best thing. You back up but you don’t give up.”
This was my mantra throughout my multiple hip replacement surgeries. Despite the pain and difficulties that they came with, my physical misfortunes forced me to pivot my athletic ambitions and took my career trajectory in an unexpected and positive direction.
After my first hip replacement, I realized that I probably needed a new sport. I always loved the kayaking section of the adventure races, so I decided to become a solo ultra-endurance kayaker. I focused on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t do — and broke a 24-hour Guinness World Record in kayaking in the process.
But the best thing that these metal hips ever brought me was the inspiration to start The Project Athena Foundation, my 501c3 nonprofit organization that helps Survivors of medical or traumatic setbacks complete an adventurous dream as part of their big comeback story. The direction that I was forced to take ultimately enriched my life (and the lives of so many worthy and wonderful Survivors), and I’ve felt grateful for the hardships I faced ever since.
“Great leaders focus their team on the comeback, not the setback.”
The best team builders know that overcoming challenges means not only “enduring” those setbacks but using them as a springboard to your next great success.
2. Focus on The Hope of Success Versus the Fear of Failure
When you and your team are faced with a challenge, what is it that guides you? Is it the hope of success or the fear of failure?
During these uncertain moments, many of us operate out of fear of failure. We focus our attention and efforts on not falling short, on trying to stay just one step ahead.
But the greatest leaders think differently. Sure, they are cognizant of the possibility of failure, especially when dealing with a difficult situation, and they prepare to deal with the things that go sideways, but their main focus is on doing what it takes to “win” versus simply “not lose”. There is a subtle yet profound distinction between the two.
You may think that worrying about the what if’s, potential stumbling blocks, and things you DON’T want to happen will keep you safe, but the truth is, that mindset stifles your creativity and innovation. The hope of success is often the mother of invention and the catalyst that wins contracts, changes an industry, wins races, saves lives. The fear of failure results in a life among the safe, the “good” and the comfortable.
3. Think “We” (instead of “Me”) When Facing Challenges
‘”We” Thinking is probably the most overlooked aspect of leadership and overcoming challenges at work. Most people think of a team as a group of individuals, moving forward together toward a common goal. But a “we thinking” leader inspires their team to not just walk side by side together–but to literally and figuratively carry one another when they need to.
All problems are “ours”, and responsibility for success and failure is shared as one. That’s how you foster team collaboration and authentic, honest communication within your organization.
For example, when we race, every team at the front of the pack is utilizing “tow lines” that stretch from the back of a stronger team member’s pack to the chest strap of a team member who is slower at the moment so that the slower person can be pulled along at a faster pace with less effort– and we can move faster as a team than the four individuals can move alone. We will all be that strong team member and we will all be that weaker team member at some point in the long run, so all egos must be focused on team success versus individual glory.
If you want to get to the next level in the face of challenge, beyond what you can accomplish alone, you must be able to build and inspire a “We Thinking” team in which you share strengths and (more importantly) challenges, allow every employee to lead with their talents (and never rely solely on titles or tenure) and see yourself as just one important piece of a high-performance puzzle.
4. Accept Responsibility For Success And Failure As A Team
The best teams word everything as we: “We lost our way.” “We struggled in that section.” “We lost the account.”
The people who are responsible feel bad enough already. And more than likely, they know who they are. They will appreciate you having their back, and in the future, when the shoe is on the other foot, they will have yours. What happens on the team stays on the team. This grace and generosity of spirit is the glue that holds a team together over the long haul.
Besides, many team issues are due to a lack of synergy and not a particular individual’s performance. For example, if an adventure racing team’s navigation is wrong, it is not because a single navigator screwed up. There are three other people who are supposed to be helping that navigator along the way. His job is to communicate which landmarks you should all be looking for, and the rest of the team should be vigilantly backing him up. It’s this type of constant communication and support that keeps people thinking as a team.
On high-performance teams, everyone accepts complete responsibility for the group’s successes and failures. Allowing even one person to fail is a breakdown of the entire team because everyone should have been pitching in to help the one who was struggling.
Conversely, if someone is having difficulty and keeps it to themselves, they’re not a We Thinking teammate either. Asking for help instead of drowning in your own dissatisfaction, and accepting help is one of the hallmarks of a world class team.
5. Suffer Equally
A win lasts forever. Suffering is temporary and will most likely be forgotten if you make it onto the podium.
In fact, most of my stronger teammates appreciate it when egos are left at the starting line and their help is accepted and appreciated. They want to “suffer equally” (in the case of our adventure racing team, that means carrying another teammate’s backpack or towing a teammate in an attempt to make all of our heart rates close to even) because that’s the key to winning.
The other important thing to remember is that in any long-term, worthwhile journey with a team, in business and life, we will at some point be the strongest link and the weakest link. A We Thinking team accepts that and minimizes the impact of it for the greater good.
There is a beautiful flow of giving and accepting on world class teams, where even the struggle of facing unique challenges becomes an uplifting experience.
Getting closer to the finish line when it comes to audacious goals is very much like climbing a mountain — the closer you get to the peak, the steeper and more dangerous the terrain.
In order for you to continue to climb higher than ever before, you have to rope up with other team members who can share one another’s strengths and share one another’s challenges.
There are no great outcomes without great daring. When you’re a part of a truly world class team, you feel more free to take risks, and to dream bigger dreams, because together you are so much better, smarter, faster, more productive and more successful than any individual could ever be alone.