8 Great Teamwork Tools
You Can't Win Without!

(And the Movies That Prove It)

Joel Saltzman


While most of us think of movies as simply escapist entertainment, they can also serve as teaching tools - especially about teamwork; and not just the "loser-of-a-team wins the big game" kind. In fact, of the eight movies discussed below, just one of them is a "sports" movie. The rest run the gamut, with team members ranging from robbers and con men to teachers and astronauts. So join me now as we go to the movies and discover "Eight Great Teamwork Tools You Can't Win Without!"

TOOL #1: Form your team with competent, committed members

In heist movies - like "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) - a lot of the fun comes from watching the "team leader" recruit various specialists and con men for the job. Are they "in"? Are they "out"? And will this group of dropouts and hustlers ever learn to function as a team?

In "The Right Stuff" (1983), we also see the selection process - how NASA went about finding men with the "right stuff" to make it on the team. And because the prize - a trip to outer space - was so compelling, NASA could afford to be incredibly picky. In contrast is Coach Normal Dale (Gene Hackman) in "Hoosiers" (1986), a high school basketball coach with so few boys turning out to play, he's forced to include the equipment manager (or "ball boy") as part of his squad.

In our own lives, our options for potential team members generally range from "highly-competent" to "less-than-stellar." The trick is two-fold: 1) To assemble the most competent, committed members you can, and 2) get the "best" work you can from the team you do have.

In "Hoosiers," Coach Dale and his players face a debilitating pep rally. Instead of cheering for his assembled team, the crowd starts chanting for Jimmy, a gifted player who's chosen to not be on the team. ("We want Jimmy! We want Jimmy!") Dale goes on the offensive, chiding the crowd with "This is your team!" His message is clear: Appreciate your team for who they are; don't denigrate its players for who they are not.

As team leader, that's your job - to cheer for and support the team you have, not spend your time grousing about the lousy hand you've been dealt. (It's my sales team - they're no damn good!) As team leader Henry Ford advised: "Don't find a fault, find a remedy." So work to do the best you can with the team you do have, while also keeping an eye out for drafting new players to improve the quality of your team.

You may also need to let go of underachievers on your team. In "Master and Commander" (2003), for example, Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is forced to make just such a decision about a junior officer under his command. Pat Piercey, real-life commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Howard, saw the movie and likes Aubrey's style: "You mentor them, you train them; some will have the ability and some won't. Those that don't have the ability, you thank them for their service and move on."

TOOL #2: Develop and communicate a shared vision for the team.

In "Master and Commander," Captain Aubrey knows what it takes to get the best from his crew. When a canon firing exercise - designed to outgun a French warship - takes longer than he likes, Capt. Aubrey spurs them on to try harder, shouting out:

Aubrey: Do you want Napoleon to be your King?
Crew: No!
Aubrey: Your language to be French?
Crew: No!
Aubrey: Your children to sing the Marseillaise?
Men: No!
Aubrey: Then let's try again!


What's the "shared vision" of Capt. Aubrey and his crew? A free and independent England, with no interference or influence from France!

In "Stand and Deliver" (1987), teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) takes a group of rebellious remedial math students and inspires them by developing and communicating a shared vision for his team - learning Advanced Placement Calculus and passing a state exam to prove their success. His fellow faculty think he's nuts, but Escalante won't hear of it, insisting: "Students will rise to the level of expectation." And they do - as all 18 students who take the AP test wind up passing - more than any other school in Los Angeles. (A "Holly-wood fairytale," you say? The movie is based on actual events and the numbers are fact. In the years that followed, more and more students took and passed the AP test.)

For your own team, start at the end. Ask yourself: "Once this project is successfully implemented, what will it look like? What do I see as this team's crowning achievement?" Moving beyond your team's immediate goals, explore its higher purposes: "How will achieving our goals help to promote the organization's strategy and purpose?" And - even better - "How will achieving our goals improve the world at large?" A friend of mine is an employee of a large pharmaceutical company. As she once told me, "Sure I'm overworked. But it's okay. I'm working to save people's lives!"

What you're seeking is not just a clear set of goals, but a vision that is so compelling it serves to elevate and sustain the team's performance - like "working to save people's lives!"

Finally, think of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech -- a powerful tool that helped to develop and communicate a "shared vision" for his "team."

TOOL #3: Spell out the rules.

In "Hoosiers," Coach Dale spells out various "rules" early in the game, including:

"I need five players on the floor functioning as one single unit. One no more important than another."
"Pass four times, THEN you can shoot the ball."

And when Dale kicks one of his players from practice, he tells him:

"And don't come back till you learn to keep your mouth shut and listen."

Math coach Jaime Escalante lays down his own set of rules to his unruly charges:

"You will come to school one hour early."
"There will be no vacations."
"And you'll come to school on Saturdays."


While Dale and Escalante may sound like boot camp martinets (based on the above, at least) they also have the ability to motivate their students to "sign up" for their programs in first place. Whether it's going out for basketball team or the AP "team," they've elected to "follow the rules" because Dale and Escalante have inspired them with a vision that soon becomes a shared vision.

Important note: To achieve maximum "buy in" - to get the members of your team to "share" your vision - let them have a hand in creating the rules. As Mary Kay Ash, founder of May Kay Cosmetics, puts it: "People will support that which they help create."

Have your team agree on what's "fitting and proper" and what's not - including what rules YOU agree to follow. (Will you be fully committed to the team's goals? Will you be fair and impartial? Will you be open to new ideas?) Let your team know they can count on YOU to "follow the rules" just as you expect the same of THEM.

[SPECIAL NOTE: On a more macro level, are the "rules" of your organization clearly spelled out? This could range from an employee handbook ... to a Code Of Ethics --
the "rules of behavior" to be followed every day.]

TOOL #4: Spell out the roles.

In heist movies, each team member has a specific role: One guy knows how to disable the alarm system. Someone else is the getaway driver. And, of course, there's the expert safe cracker, the one who never met a safe he couldn't crack (or resist).

For your own team, do the same: Identify the roles that need to be filled and who will be responsible for fulfilling each role. And be sure to be clear on the duties involved. In "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) instructs getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to wait in the car while he and Bonnie rob a bank. But when he and Bonnie flee from the bank, they can't find Moss! Finally, they spot Moss parked across the street! Now he has to re-start the engine and get out of a very tight parking spot before they can make their getaway. Clyde, it seems, has made the near-fatal mistake of assuming that Moss fully understood the requirements of his job.

In addition to spelling out who-does-what, encourage team members to take leadership roles within the team. And allow for redistributing those roles so people with a unique expertise an jump in to solve a problem while assuming a leadership position. In "Apollo 13" (1995) for example, when things go wrong for the spaceship crew, NASA quickly gets astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) involved. Though previously scrubbed from the mission - and watching it at home on TV - Mattingly is called to return to Mission Control in a leadership position, using his expertise as a fully-trained astronaut to help them solve the power problem aboard his team's ship.

TOOL #5: Create a climate of trust, cooperation and innovation.

How do you do that? Keep talking, keep listening and keep yourself open to change.
In "Master and Commander" Captain Aubrey gives constant words of praise to his crew: ("Good job!" "Well done." "You did the right thing.") He also knows how to listen. When two young ship mates show him a model of the ship they're pursuing, Aubrey is all ears. And what he learns about the double-hulled ship causes him to change some of his battle tactics. He even learns about camouflage, or the art of deception, from an insect! ("I had no idea that the study of nature could advance the cause of naval warfare.")

How would Captain Aubrey's ideas about listening play out in the real world? Vice Admiral Deborah Loewer of the U.S. Navy has strong words of praise for the fictional Captain. Aubrey, she says, "knew that true leadership begins by listening and watching."

Even Coach Dale - "And don't come back till you learn to keep your mouth shut and listen" - learns to listen as well: Just before the final play of last final game, with his team just one point away from winning the State Finals, Dale calls a time out, telling his players that he doesn't want the last shot of the game - the one that could win the game for them - to go to their star player. ("That's what they'll be expecting."). But Jimmy - who's now on the team - braves a suggestion of his own. Coach Dale listens, agrees to give Jimmy a shot (literally) they win the game. For all his bluster and drill sergeant style, Coach Dale, by season's end, has, in fact, created a "climate of trust and cooperation." Not only does "trust and cooperation" lead to winning teams, it also creates a climate where people aren't afraid to voice their opinion or suggest new ideas.

Consider "Apollo 13." At one point In the movie (as well as real-life) Jim Lovell and crew are slowly poisoning the cabin atmosphere with their carbon dioxide. Back in Houston, the head engineer gathers a small team around a table and dumps out an assortment of odds and ends, explaining that these items duplicate those available to the astronauts. The engineers' mission? "We've gotta find a way to make this [large, square carbon dioxide filter] fit into the hole for this [smaller, cylindrical filter] using nothing but [the items on the table]." Charged with figuring out how to "put a square peg in a round hole," their final product isn't pretty, but it works - combining a plastic bag, cardboard from a flight manual, a hose from one of their pressure suits, duct tape, and a sock. Clearly, this NASA crew (both in space and in Houston) has developed the trust and cooperation that allows them to work on the fly and innovate to save the day.

TOOL #6: Lead with integrity - being tough on principles, not people.

What's integrity? Putting values into actions. (As Aristotle wrote: "Character is action.") When Coach Dale, for example, finds that he does NOT have " five players on the floor functioning as one single unit," but rather one key shooter who's suddenly making himself "more important" than the others, Dale benches him - even though it means leaving just four players (instead of five) on the court. In this swift, dramatic move, Dale puts his principles into action, demonstrating to his team that integrity -playing by the "rules" of their team - really does matter, even if it results in a short-term loss like the loss of one game. (As Coach Dale might say: "You all agreed to play as team. Then play like a team!" His action - playing the game with just four players - drives that point home LOUD and CLEAR.)

In "Master and Commander," when a crewman purposely bumps into a junior officer, Aubrey acts swiftly, ordering that the man be publicly flogged. Keep in mind: flogging was an acceptable punishment of the day, allowing Aubrey to maintain discipline on his ship by letting everyone see just what happens when you DON'T follow the rules. (As Vice Admiral Deborah Loewer put it in 2003: "What I dislike most from a crew is active, physical disrespect for a superior. It's like a cancer. If you don't cut it out, it can permeate an entire ship." )

Having established team rules and standards, everyone on the team - from its leader on down - is charged with demonstrating integrity by upholding their commitment to "follow the rules." Should conflicts arise or people not live up to their responsibilities, the leader can avoid "making it personal" by referring back to team agreements (ie; the rules).

Taking the OPPOSITE approach is hotshot Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), who most definitely DOES make it personal: "You see this watch?," he asks one of the salesman under him. "That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. That's who I am. And you're nothing." Baldwin's medieval tactics - including a vicious sales contest where first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado, second prize is a set of steak knives, and "Third prize is you're fired" - leads to desperation, strife, and theft among the team. Baldwin, you could say, has his whole team flogged.

While Baldwin has nothing but an agenda of terror, the punitive actions of Aubrey and Dale demonstrate integrity - the reinforcement of principles vital to the success of the team.

Bottom line? Don't ask "Who's wrong?," ask "What's right?"

TOOL #7: Provide external support, rewards, and recognition.

Rally the support of upper management and stakeholders, ensuring that your team receives the necessary tools and support it requires to achieve its goals. Gene Kranz, flight director for Apollo 13 (Ed Harris in the movie), recalls: "The training [ie; support] was such that by the time you finished the process, you had the confidence that, given a few minutes, you could solve any problem. That's all there was to it. And it didn't matter what the size, what the magnitude, what the origin of the problem was. The fact was that you could solve any problem that came up."

In contrast, consider the Jamaican bobsled team in "Cool Runnings" (1993). While the team has all the heart and drive it needs, what it lacks - and what ultimately keeps them from winning - is the external support (team sponsorship, for example) that would otherwise provide them with a quality sled. Namely, the right equipment to get the job done!

In "Stand and Deliver," Jaime Escalante also faces a lack of support. Hired by the high school district to teach computer science, the school they send him to doesn't have computers! And the faculty and administration - lacking any belief in its kids - have long ago thrown in the towel. In spite of this overwhelming lack of support, Escalante vows to train his remedial students in calculus. In fact, as team leader, what Escalante is really providing is the "external support" these kids crave and deserve, providing them with a belief-in-self that will serve them well out in the world.

Finally, be sure you can communicate to each team member the kinds of external rewards and recognition they can expect. It could be could be a bonus, a better parking spot, or - if the team is cross-functional - positive feedback to each team member's manager and/or Human Resources. (That way, no one gets penalized for being "out of sight and out of mind.") Without external rewards - and the communication of those rewards - "What's in it for me?" goes unanswered. And that's not good.

TOOL #8: Lead with optimism and "Can do!" enthusiasm

Regarding the plight of Apollo 13, Gene Kranz writes that even when things looked their bleakest, he insisted on optimism, telling his team in Houston: "You must believe that this crew is coming home. I don't give a damn about the odds and I don't give a damn that we've never done anything like this before. Flight control will never lose an American in space. You've got to believe, your people have got to believe, that this crew is coming home."

Your team demands - and deserves - your optimism and "Can do!" enthusiasm. As Commander Ann Phillips, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Mustin, puts it: "The crew is looking at you every day for energy, enthusiasm and focus." Meanwhile, don't forget to have some fun as well - even in the midst of battle. In "Master and Commander," with his ship under fire, Captain Aubrey orders his crew to craft a makeshift decoy. He then sends a young officer off by himself to sail the decoy away from their ship. Dodging cannon fire, the young man gets the decoy on its way, then swims back to the ship. Hoisted aboard, his smiling Captain greets him with the words: "Now tell me that wasn't fun!"

Remember: Enthusiasm - like fun - is contagious. So make it a habit to share your passion, remind your team of its vision, and lead every day with "Can do!" enthusiasm. Your people will work harder, be more committed, and bring your team closer to its vision and goals. "You've got to believe, your people have got to believe," that you and your team will achieve its goals!

Joel Saltzman is a speaker, facilitator and consultant who teaches people in business to
Shake That Brain! and discover solutions for maximum profit.
Visit Joel's website at www.shakethatbrain.com
He can be reached Toll Free at 877-Shake It! (877-742-5348).
e-mail: joel@shakethatbrain.com

 

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