The Power of Culture
Strong Culture Rarely Exists In The Wild
The ghost orchid is one of the worlds rarest flowers. Since its first sighting in 1954, it has been found in the wild less than two dozen times. Yet it can be cultivated and grown in greenhouses in large quantities. Like the ghost orchid, a powerful culture of high-performance is rarely found organically grown in the wild. The best leaders build a powerful culture by bringing together the proper conditions for their teams to thrive.
Potential leaders who randomly gather groups of individuals in the hope that someday, like a rare, naturally growing ghost orchid, they will find themselves the leaders of high-performance teams are likely to be disappointed. Yet if they intentionally built a cultural greenhouse, planted the right seeds, applied the exact amounts of moisture, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sunlight to ensure a strong culture thrives, they would have a significantly greater probability of success.
To lead a great team with a strong culture it is best to be a great leader and to be a great leader, one must be like horticulturists who presides over a successful greenhouse. Great leaders must be scientific, deliberate… intentional.
Culture Trumps Traits
A strong culture results in a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. A strong culture has the power to inspire team members to perform beyond their natural abilities. I learned this lesson in High School.
According to 23andMe, I was not genetically predisposed to be an athlete. When I first got my report back in 2011, they told me that I was not a sprinter. You don’t know how glad that makes me that they didn’t tell me that when I ran track in high school. Because in May 1974, I ran on the JP Stevens High School (also known as North Edison) mile relay team. In that year we were one of the top sprint relay team in the state. In the NJ All Group, state championship meet we finished third with a time of 3:23.2 behind first place Montclair High School with a time of 3:18.9 and matching the time of second place Tenafly High School.
I don’t know the genetic makeup of the other members of my team, but I do know that the four of us were of a homogeneous background. We were all of eastern European descent. In fact, we used to refer to ourselves as “Three Jews and a Polack (I apologize if this is offensive but it is a fact that in those less PC times this what how we referred to ourselves).” The Mile Relay is considered a sprint relay consisting of four legs of 440 yards (a quarter mile) each. The metric equivalent, 400 meters is dominated by African American athletes. The elite mile relay teams in NJ in 1974 were predominately African American, which makes sense when you see that 23andMe data asserts that people of African descent are 95.2% predisposed to be power athletes.
Here is where culture comes in. I was a respectable competitor on the relay. I usually caught up ground or passed runners in front of me. In three years of running varsity track, I can count on one hand the number of times I was overtaken and passed. Yet, as an individual contributor, I performed true to my 23andMe, never-going-to-be-a-sprinter, genetic makeup. I was mediocre at best quarter-miler. Yet, despite the fact that 23andMe says, “you’ll never be an athlete,” in competitive relay races, I won a few medals. What was the difference between me as an individual “sprinter” and a relay team member?
The Power of Culture
I had run track, played soccer, been on swim teams for years before this mile relay team. This team was different. We were tightly knit. We’d frequently go out to dinner together. We hung out at each other’s houses. We let our dates join us as we went to the prom together. We had funny rituals. We designed and created our own pre-race, warm-up shirts. They had our nicknames emblazoned on the back, Flick, Flea, Hellboy (me), and Walt (Walter wasn’t that creative). We wore thin knee-high white socks to be different and to stand out when we were running. Other teams would look at us and make fun of us when we were lining up for a race. When we picked up our medals we laughed back at them.
Flick Flea and Hellboy after graduating from High School all attended the University of Maryland. While at UMD, we formed an intramural track team which won the intramural championship. Even today, we still get together as a group. In 2013 and 2016 we treated our coach to dinner in New York City and in New Brunswick NJ. I have no doubt that if I ever needed anything that was in the power of these guys to give, they would give it.
We were a team. No… we are still a team. We had a culture that resulted in strong bonds. We as a team performed well above who we were as individuals.
Why did I run so much faster for my relay teammates than I would for myself in individual events? Why did I perform above my genetic predisposition?
The 440 yard relay is a race against pain. It’s a very long sprint. Raw speed is almost as important as a willingness to drive yourself to the finish-line running through excruciating pain. I wasn’t willing to put myself through that kind of pain for me as I was willing to endure for my team. I didn’t mind letting me down… I wasn’t going to let my team down. That’s how a strong culture works. A strong culture based on a common purpose shared goals and trust unlocks performance levels in people that they are unable or unwilling to obtain on their own.
How did this culture develop? Our coach… he was an intentional leader. He set clear rules and goals. He was a voracious reader, a lifelong learner, on the constant lookout for the latest research or training regimens. He never knew enough. He was constantly seeking better training methods. He was demanding. Even though those of us on the mile relay team were “sprinters,” he demanded that we run cross country. He never entered me in a cross-country race. Probably because I sucked… but I still had to train for distance running every day. He wanted us to be in top condition. So he forced the quarter-milers to run long hard miles together and we would bitch and moan about coach as we ran his workouts on the mean streets of Edison NJ (okay the mean part is for poetry sake).
Coach was diabolical. Starting with winter track, he required that we work out twice a day. Throughout winter and spring track, we would be required to show up to school 90 minutes early for morning workouts. Coach argued that we lost conditioning in our sleep and he wanted us to be in peak shape for our after-school torture he liked to call workouts. He’d laugh at us as we would gasp for air, and we would curse him amongst ourselves. He would call us very non-PCish names. He would push us to exhaustion and then blow his whistle and push us more. We hated him during workouts. He was tough, fair and we knew he had our backs. We knew we had a common purpose, to do our best and win medals. We knew our coach knew his craft. And we loved him, we still do. Each of us appreciates the effect he had on our lives.
This extraordinary man created an extraordinary culture of high performance. He forged us into a team of brothers who would punish our bodies, run through pain, push our ourselves beyond the limit until our bodies revolted in exhaustion, cramps, and often times vomit. This man created a team that would push ourselves beyond the limit as opposed to letting down our brothers. Our track team was undefeated in our junior and senior years. This man gave us much more than the honors and medals he helped us win. He helped form our character.
Such is the power of culture. Culture doesn’t just happen. It requires leadership, ritual, a clearly defined purpose, and trust. A strong culture of high-performance rarely pops out of thin air.
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