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Leadership lessons from the Boston Bruins

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In a November 26 Boston Globe article, sportswriter Kevin Paul Dupont outlines some of the factors contributing to the success of Boston’s National Hockey League team, the Bruins. Dupont focuses on the leadership demonstrated by the team’s captain, Zdeno Chara, as well as the coach and some of the other players.

No one thought Chara would make it as a professional hockey player. He is much taller than most hockey players and was awkward as a youth. His emergence as one of the dominant players in the game and captain of a Stanley Cup winning team is very surprising. Chara’s road was not smooth; he did not receive much encouragement early in his career and he learned a lot from this experience. He played on two other NHL teams prior to his joining the Bruins. Neither of these teams won a championship while he was playing for them. He is now in a position to take what he has learned and apply it to the Bruins.

Well known therapist and teacher Irvin Yalom states that a group leader may play two roles: the
Technical Expert and the Model Setting Participant. Chara regularly plays the role of Technical Expert by virtue of his 17 years in the National Hockey League and his 2008 award of the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in the league. His teammates and coaches describe his role as Model Setting Participant in their recognition of his preparedness and attention to personal physical training. It is known that he is one of the most physically fit players in the league.

In addition to his hard work, Dupont notes a number of important leadership activities attended to by Chara and his teammates:

• Respect all: New players on the team have noted: “Guys are so welcoming”, “..you feel the most comfortable here…” The coach, Claude Julian adds: “all players should be treated with respect”. This respect is part of the team inclusiveness (see below)

• Engaged in a common purpose “..everyone has to run toward the same goal”. The common purpose must be clear and understood by all involved. The most successful teams and non-sport organizations as well, do not have one or two super stars but rather everyone working as hard as they can toward the goals of the organization. When the goals are confused or not clear, the team might be expending a lot of energy, but not engaged in a common purpose.

• Responsibility: everyone pitches in at practices, games and off-ice activities to support the team’s overall goals. I once worked for a company (in the days before cell phones) where I needed to call the home office from the field. The person who answered the phone had an unmistakably high and scratchy voice that I knew belonged to the Chairman of the Board. I asked him why he was answering the phone. His response? “It was ringing” The atmosphere in this company was based on responsibility: everyone did whatever was necessary to achieve the goals.

• Inclusiveness “everyone’s got to be included”… “no one feels left out”. This is related to “Respect all”, above. If they are a member of the team, they have all the rights and privileges of any team member. Inclusiveness and respect are hallmarks of a successful team. This facilitates maximum participation from everyone involved and fosters the best production from the team.

• Maintenance of team culture “It takes a lot of energy, time, caring and attention to detail”. These activities, modeled by the team leaders, then set the standards for the rest of the participants. Chara describes the culture as “we have to be physical as a team and emotionally attached to those games, and that’s when we’re playing our best. That’s the identity”. When you watch Chara play you notice how he embodies this identity.

• Maintain focus: “stuff happens” but overall the team must stay focused on the goal it wants to achieve. Relentless pursuit of a goal can bring results. Management guru Tom Peters has noted that great things can be accomplished by “a mono-maniac on a mission” What happens when there are 20 or 30 or 50 mono-maniacs on a mission?

• Communication: “…keep dialogue open, direct, and honest”. “…give him a chance to speak and just to listen…”Communication is how human systems exchange energy. If this energy interchange is not working, the team will suffer.

• Accountability: “…you are going to have to correct it, or there is not going to be room for you in here.” In recent years, two highly regarded players were traded away because it was felt they were not contributing to the team’s culture of sacrifice and hard work and were not making the necessary changes to fit in with their teammates.

• Delegation: When Chara first joined the team “He was trying to do everyone’s job”. Now he delegates some of the leadership responsibilities to his alternate captains and some of the older guys on the team.

• Defined roles: everyone must fulfill their role on the ice, in the locker room and off the ice. This results in a strong team and not just a group of individuals working at cross-purposes.

An organization’s success is based on the successful interactions of the people involved. This includes sports teams, non-profits, retail outlets and any other endeavor that must rely on people to achieve its goals. Other people based organizations may learn a lot from Chara and the Bruins.

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