As a kid, I always gravitated to disruptors in the music I listened to: Elvis who disrupted the sound of the 1950s; Michael Jackson who disrupted the world of videos in the 1980s. Not surprising since disruption was in my blood. Shortly after he graduated college, my dad left a career in engineering and decided to pursue his passion for music. In the 1950s, his quartet, Los Llopis, disrupted the sounds of Cuba, becoming the first to integrate American rock ‘n’ roll with the rhythms and the sounds of the island.
But today I realize something: My dad wasn’t just disrupting the status quo – he was creating something new: Cuban crossover music. Elvis and Michael Jackson were creators too.
Maybe that’s why when it comes to sports, I gravitate to the New England Patriots, the disruptors of the NFL and perhaps its most hated team. Yet in their disruption the Patriots in the Robert Kraft-Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era have, like my music heroes, created something unprecedented: a team and quarterback that have won five Super Bowls together.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Patriots epic comeback against the Falcons and what to say about it, and I realized that in our fractured political world, the Patriots offer a lesson for all organizations and leaders: teams only grow when they evolve together.
You don’t have to like the Pats, but you do have to admire the way their leadership and players function as a team. From Kraft to Belichick on down, their leaders touch the business of the team as much as they lead it: They are in touch with the people on the field and off who influence the outcomes. And what outcomes. Any team can win once, maybe twice, but to keep winning requires more than just putting up numbers. It requires more than just following an agenda. Those numbers and that agenda become stronger and those teams become more creative in thought and create more distinction when they are in a position of evolving together.
I get it: Many of you would sooner go shirtless in winter than wear a Brady jersey. But the Patriots’ success offers several important lessons for creating environments in which people and teams grow by evolving together.
Think of your team as think tank
A think tank is made up of experts who work together to advise and solve specific problems – everyone has responsibility and influence and continually adds value. A team that acts like this has a constant energy around sharing opportunities and momentum with others and leading to leave a legacy to multiply success. This energy also creates a constant push-pull effect within the group and an environment in which everyone never gets too comfortable with the results. Not just in a “I’m-going-to-lose-my-job-if-I-do” kind of way but in a “I’d-better-stay-on-my-toes-and-anticipate-the-unexpected” kind of way. The team knows there are always new problems to be solved, opportunities beyond the obvious to be seen, and expectations to deliver on for everyone.
Align perception with expectation
The Patriots may not always get it right but they rarely mistake perception and expectation. Their players never suffer from an identity crisis – they know what is expected of them as individuals and what the expectations of the team are. That’s a winning formula. It’s also why the Patriots can find the likes of Tom Brady in the sixth round of the draft or Julian Edelman in the seventh. It’s why veterans like Randy Moss work to overcome past perceptions to fit the team’s expectations in order to win. It’s also why stars like Jamie Collins can find themselves packed off to Cleveland in the middle of Super Bowl season if the team feels perceived value does not or cannot evolve with expectation. Collins was in the middle of a dominant season and fans were stunned, but the Patriots clearly felt they could start expecting more from others and get something in return before Collins’ contract expired without costing them the championship.
Know who is qualified to be on the team
In business, like sports, we see this all the time: Strategies for team building and organizational transformations look good on paper but lack the right people to execute and implement them. The Patriots never seem to lack the right people to execute – but what is right is never about the résumé. They know that the team they had last season or even last week is not necessarily the team that they will need to lead tomorrow. They know where the gaps are and solve for them quickly. For the Patriots, the key is mindset, not experience. A rookie like Malcolm Mitchell or second year undrafted star Malcolm Butler can add just as much value as veterans who have years more experience and track records but lack the right mindset that influence the team’s success. Too many leaders on other teams let those veterans harp on their past successes to legitimize themselves. Those veterans often end up sucking all the air out of the room, leading other team members to just sit there quietly, play it safe, and do what they are told and thus weaken those teams. Leaders who are in touch with their teams know that people who do nothing but talk about the past get the team stuck moving on to the future and solving for opportunities in the present.
Realize difference and dissent drive better growth outcomes
In my blog about the Grammys, I talked about the need to face uncomfortable truths and face the things people are thinking but do not dare to say – finding like-mindedness in our differences not manufactured assimilation to some universal notion of team. That assimilation might have worked in the past with, say, the Yankees of George Steinbrenner who made players shave and get haircuts. But the Patriots understand that a today’s teams are more diverse and made up of individuals who want to maintain their individuality as they work towards the team’s goals. So they love Edelman’s beard, Dont’a Hightower’s braids, and Gronk’s Gronkiness. But the Patriots also thrive despite something damaging to most teams: dissent. After the Super Bowl, a growing number of team members said they would not visit the White House in opposition to the policies of President Donald J. Trump. This is not unprecedented, but it is remarkable given that Kraft, Belichick, and Brady are publicly friends and/or supporters of the President. Yet there was not one public statement from the team against those players who spoke out – and not one statement by those players against their leaders when they supported the President.
On the field, dissent is absent, but off the field it can be voiced and tolerated even when not embraced. It has to be.
Patriots’ players know they are in professional alignment with the goals of the team and that allows the team to survive and evolve past dissent and difference. That’s what happens when everyone feels valued as individuals and yet has a mindset that fits the team and a strategic focus beyond execution. So, throw the old mindset out when it comes to your teams : Great teams know how to evolve together by allowing everyone to find their distinction and best apply it to the organization they are serving. That’s winning with an innovation mentality.