Leadership Lessons from Tug-Of-War
© 2013 Eric Kaufmann, President, Sagatica, LLC
“What am I creating?” is a critical leadership question you must ask yourself every day. The answer shapes your personal productivity, choices and actions. The answer to this question also orients your team’s choices—it creates alignment. The primary reason for organizations to exist is to harness the collective power of the group. WE can accomplish more than I; 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. Teamwork requires that we subjugate our needs and impulses, emphasize consideration of others, and apply emotional intelligence. On the downside, teamwork can rob us of 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 remarkable power when everyone is focused on the same horizon. When each member can answer, “What am I creating?” in the same way, amplification occurs. By collectively focusing on the same objective, team members get to harness the power of alignment.
Tug-of-war is a practical example of the power of alignment. I grew up playing this game as it 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 still recall the muscle popping, grunting efforts we exerted as we pulled the rope with our body and soul in order to pull our opponents toward us and over the midway line. The biggest and heaviest team member was 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 and 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.
Alignment was the winning factor. Teams whose members pulled together at the same time and angle 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 arises 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.