The Dream Team Syndrome

It's March Madness time, so everyone has basketball fever.  I hope that your team, or your bracket, or both, are still alive!

Basketball is a compelling sport for people who love leadership like me.  There are so many lessons to be learned from the sport and how it's played.  There are moments in basketball when the five players on the court meld as one.  There are other moments when one star player just takes over the game and wills his/her team to victory.  There are also moments when some rookie kid comes in off the bench and saves the day.  In basketball, the outcome of each game can be determined in a wide variety of ways, which is why we're glued to our TVs and computer screens throughout March and April.

An entire leadership dissertation could be written from the movie Hoosiers alone.

There is one particular story from the game of basketball that I like to use when speaking to groups, especially when sending the message that group mission should always supercede individual agendas.  The thinking here emerged from my work with boards, although it can apply to any group.

I've spent time around dozens of fraternity and nonprofit boards comprised of supremely talented and successful individuals, and more often than not, I find myself baffled as to how they can be so dysfunctional as a group.  It's the Dream Team syndrome.

For those in their 20's and beyond, Dream Team doesn't likely need an explanation.  However, I'm now entirely aware of (and entirely bothered by) the fact that current college students were born in the mid 90's.

For many years, the United States (and other nations) sent its top amateur basketball players to represent our country in the summer Olympic games.  This meant college players for us.  In the late 80's, there was a push to change this practice.  Since basketball was increasing it's profile globally,  and since the International Basketball Federation wanted to increase the excitement around the sport, they made the decision to include professional players in future Olympics, starting with the 1992 games in Barcelona.  America was hesitant at first, but then want along with the plan.  Our college players had some mixed results, including a 3rd place finish in the 1998 games, so this was actually a chance to reclaim dominance in the sport of basketball internationally.

Team USA went to work to assemble what was described as the best professional sports team to ever exist.  The media quickly dubbed this ensemble "the Dream Team."  Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and so many other hall of fame players answered the call to represent their country.

The United States then rolled through the 1992 Olympic games.  In fact, it wasn't even close.  The average scoring margin of the games was 44 points.  The rest of the world could do nothing to stop this team.  It was almost silly.

And why shouldn't it be?  Basketball was invented in America, and we have the best players in the world.  That's still true today.  Canada has hockey, Europe has soccer, and we have basketball.  We should be dominating that sport arguably more than any other in the Olympic games.  And in 1992, we did.

And in 1996.  And again in 2000 (although it was getting closer).

And then came 2004.

Up until this point, for the American people, a gold medal in basketball was a given.  We were crushing the competition.  There was more drama around who would be selected for the latest Dream Team than any of the actual games could offer.  And in 2004 in Athens, we again sent our best.  Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson among others.

Something seemed off.  This team had the star power, but not the chemistry.  That caught up to them.  The rest of the world had been steadily improving their game, and we had gotten lazy.  That became crystal clear in the first game of those Olympics when Team USA was stunned by Puerto Rico, 92–73.  After regrouping and winning a couple of games, they lost again (this time to Lithuania).  And then came another loss to Argentina in the medal round.  After all the dust cleared, the boys from USA wore bronze around their necks instead of gold.

What happened?  How can a hall of fame roster fall short to teams with players no one had heard of?

The other teams had to function as true teams in order to succeed.  Team USA tried to rely on individual talents, hoping that would be enough to dominate the competition.  But it wasn't.  The best players in the world lost to lesser players who happened to be on better teams.

Are the lessons for us?  Your fraternity, your sorority, your board of trustees, your office staff, your council - no matter what group of individuals you can think of - can fall victim to the Dream Team syndrome.  We cannot expect that simply finding the best individuals and throwing them together is going to mean anything for success.  You could assemble a dream team of all-stars, and it might start out great.  However, unless these all-stars accept the shared mission of the organization and put that ahead of their own personal interests, the group will fall flat on its face.  It's a simple lesson really: teams need to be comprised of people who believe in the team's goals.  A simple lesson that often gets set aside, especially when we are enamored by the quality of the star players.  

There is also a lesson from the Dream Team in the perils of overconfidence.  Years of success probably gave Team USA the belief that simply showing up was enough.  Add individual ego to the mix, and you have a recipe for the kind of hubris that crashes the loudest.

You may in fact fit that all-star billing yourself.  But remember, if you choose to play a team sport (such as fraternity or sorority), you need to place your personal ambitions underneath the team's objectives.  It's fine to have personal goals and personal rewards, but they should be the spoils of a greater team accomplishment.

Let's remember that recruiting outstanding men and women for our organizations is the first step, but we can't stop there.  Ask any coach of an NBA team: finding the all-stars is the easy part when compared to the grueling work it takes to intentionally build a functional team.  Whenever we can and wherever we can, we need to emphasize our shared values and our shared mission.  Teams that form around those things, and then fit their all-star individual talents into a plan to achieve them, are the ones that find the podium.


Mentor with Meaning

Has our casual attitude and approach to mentoring diminished its power?

A mentor of mine, Dr. Denny Roberts, once shared the opinion with me that the word mentor has become watered down.  I agree.  I'm  not one who generally cares about terminology battles, but I can get on board with this.  Mentor is now used all of the time to describe a wide scope of relationship types, of any length, depth, or value. You can be called a mentor if you spend an hour with a person, or a decade.  You can be called a mentor even if the impact you have is forgettable.  So-called "mentors" can come in and out of our lives like taxi cab drivers.  By the time we are in college, we've probably had dozens of individuals in our lives who were called or claimed to be our mentors. 

Lots of educational institutions and nonprofits now have "mentorship" programs.  "Be a mentor today" is a common slogan.  Mentoring relationships are even becoming predetermined.  Once, on a plane, I overheard a guy complaining to the person next to him about how much he dislikes his assigned mentor.

With mentor becoming relatively synonymous with having any well-intentioned interaction with another person, what term is truly left to describe the extraordinarily powerful, life-altering link between a person with guidance to share and a person eager to soak it up?  The link that turns a caring adult in your life into a father or mother-figure? What can you call the Yoda in your life, the Morpheus, the Mary Poppins, the Professor Keating?  With mentor becoming a benign, throwaway word in our culture, can it still do these types of relationships justice?

Dr. Roberts' concerns with our overuse of mentor came also from the historical derivation of the word.  Mentor was a character in Homer's The Odyssey.  If you remember, The Odyssey is a sweeping story of Odysseus and his adventures during his return home from the Trojan War.  While he was gone on his quests, Odysseus entrusted his kingdom and his most important possession - his son Telemachus - to the wise Mentor.  That level of trust was profound.  Because of Mentor's wisdom and regard, the Goddess Athena chose to take on his persona while giving Telemachus guidance that would alter his life. 

If you had to entrust your child with one other person in this world, who would that be?  Probably someone extraordinarily consequential to you.  Someone like Mentor.

Ever since The Odyssey, the word Mentor has come to mean a rare relationship that is longstanding, caring, and developmental.  Well - maybe not so much any more.

The purpose of this essay isn't to try to reverse how the term mentor is being used, or try to reclaim its significance as a word.  That probably can't happen at this point anyhow. I only wanted to share the information above as encouragement to all of us to remember, and not take for granted, the presence of true mentors in our lives.  Even if the word gets watered down, the relationships are real.  And you know which ones they are.

A lot of my mentors come from my college years.  I'm guessing that's true for a lot of you as well.  College is a time designed to force us into a journey of self discovery, and so we tend to be attracted to influential people who want to help us along that path.  Thus, fraternity can provide us these opportunities as well.  Consider for a moment your big brother or big sister program.  Some bigs and littles will define their relationship by gifts to each other and perhaps a deeper friendship.  Others will grab that chance to coach a younger member on how to draw the most power from the fraternity experience.  They'll seize the opening to mentor.

By the way, if you let down your guard, get to know them, and let your relationship with them flourish, Greek advisors can become some of the best mentors you could ever have.

Take a moment to think about who are true mentors in your life. Remember - there should only be a few.  Do these people know this?  If not, why wait to tell them?

And, consider another question. Are you currently, or have you ever been, a mentor to anyone?  As you look at it, you may need to downgrade some of the relationships you thought were mentorship because they aren't at that high of a level.  Or, if you want to continue to call it mentorship, then you may have to double your efforts to earn it. Give your heart and soul to it.  Make it matter more to the other person than it does now - more than they would have thought possible.

And, if it isn't a mentoring relationship after all, a caring relationship of any kind still matters immensely. Young people need those now more than ever. The Search Institute's research shows that the presence of a caring non-parent adult in the lives of young people could be the tipping point for their future.  It doesn't have to be mentorship to matter.  I have lots of advisors, coaches, supporters, and friends in my life who have made a difference for me.

But I only have a few mentors.

And to my mentors - I thank you. I'm sending you a personal note today to remind you of how much you mean to me.  You have earned every ounce of the meaning of that word.  And by now, you should know, that its a word I hold in reserve.  For only those rare relationships. For you.

Dr. Denny Roberts has an outstanding blog, Pursuing Leadership.  He is also the author of Deeper Learning in Leadership: Helping College Students Find the Potential Within.