Leadership, passion and athletics

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Over the ten years I have been in Minnesota, I have become an almost fanatical fan of the University of Minnesota Gopher Women’s Hockey Team. I love the skill that is more apparent without checking, and I thoroughly enjoy that the young women who play are involved only through love of the game. There is no pot of money in professional sports waiting for college women hockey players who excel. It does not hurt that the University of Minnesota has one of the premier women’s hockey programs.

The just-completed season was incredible! The team had 41 wins — no losses, no ties — their second consecutive NCAA championship, and ended the season on a 49-game winning streak. No NCAA Division I women’s hockey team had ever completed an unbeaten season.

Participating as a fan in this incredible winning season was fantastic; however, my enjoyment came from more than the perfection of winning every game. First, the young women and the coaching staff are incredible people. Second and more important for our purpose, the success of the team supports everything we discuss in this column every month: The success was the result of leadership, “the vision thing,” passion and teamwork.

I see the following four leadership points in this experience:

  1. Great success requires talented people. This team had very skilled hockey players. Team members garnered most of the league and national awards at the end of the year. All teams, whether in sports or on your farm, must recruit talented team members that excel in the roles assigned to them.
  2. Teams do not succeed just because they have talent. Although this team was talented, no one saw this degree of success coming at the beginning of the year. The team had lost heavily to graduation. Interestingly, the only other Division I hockey team to go unbeaten — the 1970 Cornell men’s team — lost three all-Americans to graduation the year before going unbeaten. We see numerous sports teams loaded with talent failing to succeed.
  3. Successful teams — sports, business, volunteer, farm — succeed because everyone is passionate about team success. That passion almost always comes from something more meaningful than winning games or making money. This is the “vision thing.” For this team, the passion — the meaning — was embodied in four values: tough, grateful, disciplined and devoted. A couple months ago in this column, I referenced Marcus Buckingham’s definition of leadership: “Leaders rally people to a better future.” These four values were the “rally” part of this definition for the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team. Both coaches and players stated that if the team focused on these values, success would come.
  4. The passion and meaning derived from “the vision thing” — the four values for this team — inspires each team member or workforce member to strive for more than themselves. They work for the team, for success of the team or the farm. One of the Gopher hockey players was asked in a news conference after a game late in the season what enabled this team to remain so focused and to play at such a high level. She thought for a moment and then replied in a tone indicating she was confident in her answer: “We play for each other!”

Leadership Lesson: Successful teams — sports teams or the workforce of a business or a farm — succeed when the leaders identify and successfully communicate something meaningful (“the vision thing”) that each team or workforce member can passionately strive to achieve.

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at rmilligan@trsmith.com or 651-647-0495.



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