Transformational Leadership: The Evolution to World Class Teamwork

My teammates and I have learned about building World Class Teams the hard way: by competing in and winning the world’s toughest ultra-endurance Adventure Races. From the leech-infested jungles of Borneo, to the towering peaks of Tibet and Ecuador, to the frigid seas and glaciers of Patagonia and the searing desert of Namibia, we have run, paddled, mountain biked, climbed, whitewater rafted, spelunked, mountaineered, navigated and raced across the most remote places on earth for up to ten NON STOP days and nights as a team. 

There is no shelter, no warm food, no escape from the harshness of the uncharted terrain, and no reprieve from the competitors relentlessly nipping at our blister-covered heels.

Is Adventure Racing Insanity? Granted. But there is one very useful, if unintended, real-world takeaway for every finisher: An honorary Ph.D. in Teambuilding. Or as I like to call it…creating Human Synergy.  

So how do we as leaders keep a team moving forward toward those audacious goals with one heart and one mind? Here are a few Essential Elements of Human Synergy that I’ve learned from the world’s greatest Extreme Teammates:

Build a Strong Team Culture By Inspiring “We” Thinking 

We are all conditioned from a young age to see winning as something mutually exclusive, as in “For me to win, you must lose”. We are wired to compete, at everything. And we do, even to the detriment of our friendships, our employees, our companies and even our marriages.  

What if you decided to instead see a world full of potential teammates instead of a world full of competitors when you left the house every morning? You would not only be happier but also far more successful.  

Great leaders understand that in the quest to become the best of the best, nobody wins alone – the more difficult the challenges and changes, the more critical the team. 

“We Thinking” leaders capitalize on their strengths and outsource their weaknesses, consistently leading change by building and inspiring a team that is able to connect to one another for mutual gain…whether for a moment, a project, a mutual goal, or a lifetime. And they happily share that space at the top of the podium with the people that got them there.  

Always Act Like a Team – It’s Far More Important than Feeling Like One

We’re not always going to feel warm and mushy about one another. We’re human! But it’s important to remember to not let emotion affect locomotion. No matter how we feel, we’re never allowed a day off from being the great leader, manager, or teammate that people need and expect us to be. In other words, the key to effective leadership is to channel your inner great leader/teammate until the good feelings come back. And in doing so, you’ll guarantee they come back even sooner.  

During the World Championships in Ecuador, my team had a major disagreement about our navigation. In fact, it caused such a rift, that we didn’t speak for hours.  But as we approached the media crews on our exit from that hiking leg, our team captain said something that changed the game for us….. “If you want to BECOME the World Champions, you need to ACT like World Champions”.  

And I’m telling you, we could have won an Academy Award for that acting performance – we jumped into our roles, congratulating one another on a job well done, getting food for one another, and giving high fives and hugs all around. It was all for the cameras, of course, but guess what happened? By the time we got new gear and moved on, we were all genuinely happy together and moving forward as a team. The argument never resurfaced. We were too busy with winning.  

Yes, I did just suggest you fake it until the feelings come back. It works. Same with love, too, by the way. Acting like you’re in love is more important than feeling like you’re in love. Try this at home. You can thank me later.  

Offer a Tow Line, but most importantly, TAKE one

Leave your ego at the start line (but not your confidence!). It’s the heaviest thing in your pack. Over the long haul, leader or not, we are all going to be the strongest link and a weaker link in our organization.  

All of us will happily offer our strength to our teammates when they need it, but how many of us are also offering our weaknesses to the team? 

On our team, every racer has ‘tow lines’, made from thin bungee cords, hanging from the back of all of our packs. If we are feeling strong, we offer it to a struggling teammate. If we are having a low moment, we grab a tow line from someone stronger and get lightly pulled along at a faster pace until we recover (versus forcing the team to slow down for us). The goal? To “suffer equally”, as my favorite team Captain, Kiwi John Howard used to so eloquently put it. You’ll get farther and faster if you do.  

I believe that we have not used all of our strengths as a leader until we have asked for and accepted help from our team members. And if that’s tough for you (Let’s face it. It is tough sometimes), I’d love to offer you a unique perspective that will help: Think about accepting help as a GIFT to the helper. 

People are thrilled when they have a chance to help you. Let them do it! You create a connection and a bond every time you do. Accepting help (and ASKING for it) is one of my favorite team synergy creating tools as a leader.  When you allow someone to help you, they rise to the occasion. And the team is stronger and faster for it. 

Put your Teammates on Your Shoulders

When we have the label of “leader” we often assume that to mean that we need to get out in front and show people the way. And that is occasionally part of the job. But my favorite leaders to work with allow for leadership among team members based on their strengths and not their titles. They “manage” the team and build a strong team culture, but allow for different leaders to emerge. And they are always focused on helping their team members inspire and amaze themSELVES – understanding that confidence and inspiration are inside jobs. 

In the 1997 Eco-Challenge, the Japanese team did something that defied all logic, reason, and the bounds of human endurance. They carried their injured female teammate for 18 hours, piggy-back style inside a backpack, up and over an incredibly steep, rocky, muddy, dense-jungle-covered 9000-foot mountain in their quest to get to the finish line. When they emerged from the sugar cane fields at the base of the mountain, battered but victorious, they did something incredibly graceful. They picked up their injured teammate and put her on their shoulders. They gave HER the moment to shine and symbolically gave her the credit for allowing them to succeed against the toughest of odds.  

It’s my favorite Adventure Racing moment of all time because their performance says it all: we don’t achieve our greatest heights as leaders by stepping on our teammates’ backs to rise higher – we stand much taller as leaders when we put our teammates on our shoulders. And we don’t inspire our teammates by leading the pack and showing them how wonderful WE are. We inspire them by putting them on our shoulders and showing them how amazing, smart, and capable THEY are.