tug-of-war can teach leadership lessons“What am I creating?” is a critical leadership question you must ask yourself every day. Personally, it aligns your choices and actions. Organizationally, it orients your team’s choices–it creates alignment. The reason for organizations is to harness the collective power of the group. We can accomplish more than I, and our collective efforts are most impressive when they surge forward in unison. Alignment produces a multiplier effect that demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Teamwork, however, can also be challenging and frustrating as we subjugate our needs and impulses and emphasize consideration of others and emotional intelligence. On the downside, teamwork can rob us of our spontaneous expression and blur our coveted individuality. On the upside, teamwork can provide a platform from which we can accomplish meaningful and breathtaking achievements.

Teams generate power when everyone is focused on the same horizon.

When each member answers, “What am I creating?” in the same way, amplification occurs. By collectively focusing on the same objective, they harness the power of alignment.

Tug-of-war is a practical example of the power of alignment. I grew up playing this game a lot. The game cost nothing, was easy to set up, and was intensely competitive. With a heeled shoe we’d scratch a line in the dirt, then we’d split our group in two. Each group took hold of opposing ends of a strong rope, and on command we’d begin to pull. I remember the effort that we expended as we pulled the rope in order to draw the opposing team toward us and over the midway line. The biggest and heaviest team member was typically the “anchor” planted at the end of the rope. As the resident “big boy” I spent my tug-of-war career as the anchor. From here I had a clear view of my team as well as the opposing team. What I learned watching both teams is that the size, weight, and strength of the team were not the most important predictors of who would win the game.

By collectively focusing on the same objective, they harness the power of alignment.

Alignment was the winning factor. Teams whose members pulled together at the same achieved cumulative force. When our backs, feet, and waists were lined up and pointing in the same direction, we became unified. The combined force of an aligned team magnified our individual contributions exponentially. I remember many sunny days anchored at the end of the line, and hoping the opposing team would look disjointed, that their guys would be out of sync, pulling the rope at different angles. When even one person pulled at a different angle, the entire team lost their cumulative force and, rather than win, they struggled.

Organizations, too, are pulling against competition in an ongoing contest for market share, resources, and talent. This constant tension is a tug-of-war with consumers and competitors. Each organizational function is a hand on the collective rope. Aligning the functions is not a mere philosophical abstraction; it is a dictate of mechanics and physics. Team members pull the rope at the operational level. When R&D, for example, pulls the rope North and production pulls the rope West, the organization falters.

Leaders are engaged in a constant tug-of-war, with not just one, but multiple ropes being pulled by multiple teams in multiple directions. As so many factors push and pull leaders’ attention and energy, it is focus –”What am I creating?”– that shapes the most effective decisions. Clarity of choice and decisions arise when you can definitively answer, “What am I creating?” as a person, as a leader, and as a team. This focus is your vision and your commitment to the future, and it illuminates a path of decisions, relationships, and behaviors that pave your unique path to success.

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