Leaders Forum: Whose team are you on? - The right answer can make all the difference

  • Published
  • By Col. Russ Kurtz
  • 412th Electronic Warfare Group commander
Have you ever asked or thought about asking someone, "So whose team are you on, anyway?" While you may have found yourself asking this question out of frustration with something or someone, it's a good question to ask.

And it's an even better one to ask yourself. Deciding whose team you are on often frames your entire perspective and approach to problem solving. It's an important decision and can be the key to unlocking your full potential, as well as the team's.

So what am I talking about? Well...in the Air Force, you need to learn how to lead, but you also need to be a great teammate. I learned this early in my career by watching and participating in a number of teams. From ROTC to the Pentagon, the basic concept is the same. You can have all the star players, but still not win the game if the players don't work well together.

Many people understand this in concept, but practical applications can, at times, prove difficult. Watching the Mavericks oust the struggling Lakers from the NBA playoffs is arguably just one good, recent example. Thus, one of the guiding principles for both commander and subordinate has to be that the team is stronger than the individual.

For me, I think the value of teamwork really hit home when I was a brand new second lieutenant. I was fresh out of school and eager to make a good impression. At an offsite, my division had a simple team building session. Individually, we were to rank ten items as to their importance in a survival situation and then re-rank them as group. Hey, this was my bag! I practically grew up in the woods having spent most of my free weekends camping in one place or another. It was so easy. It took me only a matter of minutes.

When we came together as a group, it was immediately obvious that I had the most experience in the outdoors. We discussed the lists and came up with the group's order. I argued pretty hard but got out voted on a couple of items. I was miffed. However...as you probably guessed...the group was right. Wait! I had training in this. How could this be? First, I was obviously too prideful, but more importantly, I was on the wrong team. I was only thinking in terms of "my team."

What's wrong with being on "my team?" It's a matter of perspective. When you think in terms of "Who is on my team?" what you are actually doing is looking for people who think like you do. If someone wants to go a different way, they cannot be on "my team," right? The error here is that you exclude a broad range of solutions before you even start to problem solve.

The correct approach is to be inclusive and build solutions from the broadest range of possible ideas. You need a disciplined approach in order to vet solutions. Conflict will always occur, but the key is to focus the discussion on the merits. This takes a high degree of self-confidence and tolerance from each team member. As a leader (whether informal or formal), you can do a lot to create such an environment. Your mindset has to focus on the idea that everyone on the team can contribute. I have never found a situation where each team member did not have some area of special expertise...the trick is to get it out of them!

So if not "my team," how about "your team?" As in, I want to be on "your team." This is the opposite side of the same coin. "My team" implies an internal focus and exclusivity, while thinking about things in terms of "your team" implies an external focus and sets up win/lose propositions. Like a baseball game, if it's "your team" versus "my team" only one team can win.

When people think this way, one part of the mission tends to get the focus at the expense of another. This is never a good situation. It takes each function in proper proportions to accomplish the mission effectively. Many of us have played sports growing up so this can be tough to get your head around...you mean everyone should win! I have to give up "xx" to help them! How do we do that?

First and foremost, you need to understand the larger mission and not just the mission of your particular unit. You should be focusing on "How does what I do affect the Air Force?" and not on "How can we secure our piece of the pie?" As a team member, you need to craft solutions where everyone wins. A key question to continually ask is "What is the most effective way to use these resources to further the Air Force mission?"

So, what is the "right team?" I would postulate that it is "our team?" Okay, it's not a revolutionary concept. It is simply a fact. We are all on the same team...our team is the Air Force team. However, what makes the difference is how well this mind set is internalized by each team member. It needs to permeate your entire way of thinking.

When people truly adopt this concept, team mates look beyond the local outcomes and focus on the big picture. Everyone becomes a winner. "Our team" implies that all share ownership and the responsibility to solve the problems. Simply put, there is no place to hide, because it's not your problem, it's our problem. Frankly, serving on a team that operates like this is its own reward. You can feel the energy and can-do attitude. Team members know their fellow team-mates have their backs covered and who gets credit becomes a non-issue. Everyone gets credit and everyone gains a deep sense of satisfaction that they are making a difference.

You can always tell a good team from a bad team. If a team is functioning properly, the discussions are meaningful, direct and never shy away from the tough subjects. Conversely, when conversations are short and superficial, you could be in trouble. To sum it up, being a great team mate is incredibly important and involves great effort. However, you will find that the results are well worth it.

Remember, for Airmen it will always be, "One team, one fight!"