“The individual becomes the culture and the culture becomes the individual. It becomes hard to deconstruct.”
– Louisa Thomas
“But to have that dedication and that fortitude to come back every year and try to be the best team you can be by playoff time, it takes character and toughness and that’s all embodied in the players that we have…You can save yourself a lot of problems by trying to do that work early rather than get a guy in your program and then say, ‘We gotta get rid of this guy…First I depend on the fact that bringing them in, we believe they have character as such that they care about the group more than themselves as individual players.”
– Gregg Popovich
The San Antonio Spurs have given us one of the most powerful recent examples about the importance of culture in building championship teams. This past June, the Spurs took down the Miami Heat in five games to secure their 5th championship in the Tim Duncan era. Duncan entered the NBA in the 1997-98 season and has lead the spurs to a 5-1 record in Finals appearances while amassing 3 finals MVP’s and 2 regular season MVP’s. Duncan has epitomized the selfless, team-oriented brand of basketball that has captured the imagination of millions of basketball fans and thrust the entire franchise into the national spotlight.
Ironically, the spotlight is the place where the Spurs feel least comfortable. There are countless superlatives that could be used to describe the culture of the Spurs, but the core of the Spurs cultural identity can be summed up in two words: servant leadership. The DNA of Spurs culture was created as a result of thousands of personal decisions – from players to coaches to the front office – to defer personal achievement for the greater good of the organization. For our purposes, we will define culture as “shared consciousness and purpose to achieve a common mission”.
The Priority of Culture
In the Spurs hierarchy of priorities, fostering a winning culture remains their most important objective. Before they decide their offensive sets or defensive schemes, the Spurs understand any chance of success hinges on their ability to recruit players who fit their culture. The Spurs create a cultural expectation for everyone in the organization, and then find players who fit that criteria. The culture makes demands on the player to conform to it’s ethos instead of players driving culture.
Many organizations flip this process by recruiting people primarily based on talent with the consideration of culture taking a back seat. Often, teams will inadvertently amass a conglomerate of conflicting personalities, goals, and value systems in an effort to secure large amounts of talent. The confluence of opposing ideologies and varying levels of character can make it difficult to create championship level culture. It is always more difficult to make the players fit the system than to allow the system to select the players.
The Expectations of Culture
Think about a fisherman. A good fisherman will understand what type of fish he wants to catch. He will think about the type of water he is fishing in, how the weather will affect his fishing, and any other outlying factors that could affect his fish catching ability. Once this information is compiled, he will decide what type of bait to use. By assessing his surroundings and deciding what kind of system to use, the fisherman has created cultural expectations that limit what lures he throws into the water. It would be counterproductive for him to use lures that didn’t fit with his environment.
In the same way, the Spurs have allowed their environment to limit the types of players they recruit – which means they don’t always get the most talented players – believing that the collective culture will outperform individual talent over the long haul. Teams have the opportunity to achieve prolonged excellence when their best players embody the values of their culture. Organizations become standards of entire industries when they prioritize “who” over “what”, “where”, and “how”. Culture is not a disembodied concept that requires charismatic leadership or grandiose vision casting. Culture beings and ends with people. To borrow a phrase from Jim Collins, leadership starts with getting the right people on the bus.
“In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”
– Jim Collins
Culture will be created one way or another on your team. The question remains then what kind of values will typify the culture of your organization? Will your culture – more explicitly, the teams shared consciousness and purpose to achieve a common mission – be marked by selflessness, character, servitude, and humility or will the destructive behaviors of selfishness, greed, and egoism control your locker room. What kind of culture do you want to be a part of?
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