Engineering Hope

Leaders have the unique job of trying to inspire people work to create a preferred future that is different than the one they currently live. A preferred future a vision of “what could be” is the emotional firepower that puts the “why” behind every “what”. Good leaders know how to paint a profound picture of hope in the minds of their teams so they are spurred onto greater acts of love, service and creativity.

Inspiration is a fickle thing. We have all experienced the emotional high that comes after a team retreat, the casting of a new vision, or the discussion of new strategic objectives. We are pumped and ready to go after stuff like this because the vision is fresh in our minds and our objectives are clear. 

The problem comes when the circumstances of life cause us to inevitably lose our fervor. Life has a way of clouding our vision and throwing roadblocks in our path that cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture.

This is exactly the point where a good leader needs to step in. A good leader understands that one of the most powerful weapons they have to keep their team from getting discouraged is the use of “memory”.

Leveraging Memory

A leader’s job is to use the past to inspire the present. Good leaders will leverage their past successes to help their team overcome current challenges. Remembering past acts of courage, resilience, and toughness will give their team an emotional boost to power through whatever roadblock they find in their way. 

Memory is powerful because it reminds us who we are and gives us the strength to become who we were created to be. It reminds us that difficult circumstances won’t last and it gives us the strength to strive towards a vision of “what could be.”

Leaders need to use memory as a powerful weapon to combat the challenges that can cloud your team’s vision and discourage them from working towards their mission. Every leader believes they are tasked with leading their team to greater things, to a preferred future where they will impact lives and work towards a better future. But they can’t get there without using the memories and successes of the past to connect them to their work in the present.

Moving Forward

Whenever our emotional compasses start to go haywire, we need to remember where we’ve come from so we can figure out how to start moving forward. It is the leader’s job to recall and remind the people that follow them the victories they’ve had in the past so they can confidently march towards where they want to go in the future. Remembering where we’ve been is crucial to knowing where we want want to go. 

Allow the victories of yesterday to become the fuel for where you’ll go tomorrow. 

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Becoming a Leader Worth Following

The most effective leaders are those who become the type of person that others willingly follow.

Most of us know the type of leader that we would be willing to follow—intuitively we are drawn to these type of people. We might not be able to give a detailed description, but we all know a true leader when we experience one.

Transformative leaders have a presence, they have an aura about them that embodies the principles they stand for and demonstrates the values they preach.

In assessing our own leadership the challenge is clear: How do I become the type of leader others are willing to follow?

Transformative leadership is only possible when a leader develops the necessary habits, dispositions, and mindset that allows their effectiveness to be unleashed.


Start with You

Great leadership is more caught than taught. Simply put, your habits, dispositions, and character are what define your leadership in the eyes of the people that follow you. For better or worse the team is going to take on the personality and habits of the leader.

Leaders have a huge responsibility then to become the type of people that they want the people in their organization to imitate.

Effective leadership always, “starts with you.”  As a leader if you want the people around you to be self-controlled, selfless, full of integrity and passionate about serving others then YOU have to embody those qualities on a daily basis.

Remember leadership is more caught than taught, which means that the people on your team are going to follow your example more than what you say. You need to look in the mirror and become the type of person for others that you are asking others to become for you!


Focus on Them

As leader’s become the right people for others, they will inevitably inspire those around them to become the people they were created to be. A relational approach to team-building and leadership should be the natural extension of any leader’s commitment to becoming a leader worth following.

No one follows someone they can’t relate to and no one follows a leader they don’t feel connected to. A core requirement in becoming a “leader worth following” implies that my growth as a leader is not a self-serving exercise, but is founded on the desire to help others reach their potential.

The effectiveness of your leadership is tied to how well you marry these two approaches—“Starting with You” and “Focusing on Them.” World champion coach Gregg Popovich offers insight into how he leads his players:

“I think relationship building helps them want to play for you, for the program, for their teammates. Beyond that from a totally selfish point of view, I think I get most of my satisfaction from that. Sure winning championships is great, but it fades quickly.”

Gregg Popovich

Leaders understand that a genuine concern for the people around them is the relational building blocks that every great team is built on. Popovich does this by making an effort to build a relationship with his players on and off the court: the entire scope of their lives becomes a matter of importance, not just how many points they can score or assists they can dish out.

When leaders show that they care, strong teams are built and lives are transformed.

We can all get started by growing into a leader worth following by developing two simple habits. Here are behaviors that manifest “starting with yourself” and “focusing on them.”

  1. Daily Nourishment

“Starting with you” begins with building a sound mind, body, and spirit every day.

Every day find a time, a place, and a resource—this could be anything from a book, podcast, sermon, or article—that feeds your mind and heart with the truths of transformational leadership. Write those three things down right now.

  1. Time
  2. Place
  3. Resource


  1. Relational Approach

Write down one person you want to connect with and build into as a leader this week. Invite them to lunch or schedule a phone call. Be intentional and focus

on building that relationship this week by showing interest in who they are as a person.


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The Importance of Conflict

(1) Activate – “the warmup”

This is the warmup part of the program. It is designed to get us thinking and prepare us to chew on this week’s topic so that as we digest it, we can use what we have learned to make a impact on our teams.

This week’s topic is…


The Importance of Organizational Conflict


Few leaders have the courage to embrace organizational conflict and the awareness to facilitate it within their teams.


Most leaders are either conflict seekers or conflict avoiders, but the best leaders are conflict facilitators. One of the marks of every great team is the presence of healthy conflict. Leaders who embrace the right kind of tension understand that the right kind of friction can spark a wildfire of success.


Here are a few of the questions we will tackle this week:


• Why is the right kind of conflict important?


• What does the absence of conflict say about your team’s culture?


•  How can I become a conflict facilitator?


• Whats the cost of avoiding conflict?



(2) Engage – “the workout”

Remember that great leaders are conflict facilitators.


Leveraging Conflict

Leaders can make the mistake in believing that the absence of conflict is the sign of healthy culture, when in reality the opposite is true.


In actuality, the absence of conflict can be a sign of creeping internal rot that has the potential to eat away at the organizational integrity of your team. Don’t be fooled by this common fallacy.


Here are three principles that will help you foster a healthy culture by leveraging the power of the organizational conflict.


Conflict precipitates growth

One of the enduring principles of intimate relationship is the necessity for conflict. The greatest, most enduring relationships are always built on a healthy mix of love, care, and constructive conflict.


You can never be truly known or truly loved until you have journeyed through the choppy waters of conflict in your closest relationships. The cycle of conflict – disagreement, discussion, and resolution -with your closest friends adds layers and complexity to your relationships as you gain a better understanding of what makes the other person tick.


After cycling through this process hundreds, even thousands of times, your relationship grows from infancy to maturity. It leaves the realm of relational niceties behind and transitions to a deeper understanding of the other person. Conflict is often the conduit that reveals the truth about ourselves that we have no way of seeing.


We need both truth and love in order to grow in our relationships and as people. As popular author Tim Keller once wrote,


Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.


The penetrating tandem of truth and love both reveals our flaws and keeps us in relationship with one-another. To build a great team you need both.


Conflict Builds Trust

When a leader is able to facilitate spirited, honest discussions with their team a foundation of trust is established. Team-members that feel the freedom to speak freely develop a collective sense of unity.


The team is no longer “playing politics” which builds trust between team members. According to one author,


Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think.”


When teams become “politicky”, a false sense of harmony takes over which creates a dangerous tension.


Think of this tension like an overstocked refrigerator. When no one is able to say what they think, they experience the same dread you feel when you open your fridge and are greeted by a mess of leftovers, expired food, and families of condiment bottles – how DO 4 different ketchup bottles in the same place?


The longer you put off cleaning your refrigerator, the messier it become. In the same way, the longer your team keeps their opinions to themselves, the more the tension grows and the messier your team culture becomes in the long-run.


Conflict Drives Focus

The right kind of conflict centers around the discussion of ideas. When leaders are secure enough in their identity they create a marketplace of ideas where team-members feel confident to challenge the idea without undermining the person. This is crucial when it comes to facilitating conflict: great leaders make sure everyone understands that its never personal.


Once a team puts aside their egos and personal agendas they are able to move forward with incredible conviction and focus. Kicking around ideas in the context of honest discussion galvanizes a team to move forward with a unified strength and force of will. The right kind of conflict always drives focus.


(3) Assimilate – “the cool-down’

Ok, so we know that constructive conflict has massive benefits for your team. Constructive Conflict;


  • Breeds Trust
  • Drives Focus
  • Creates a Culture of Honesty
  • Improves Performance
  • Brings Teams Together


Next Steps

A culture where conflict is accepted has to begin and end with the coaching staff. If the players sense that some part of the staff is not in lockstep with the head coach, this sets a precedent that avoiding conflict is OK (even if they see an issue).


Public Fans, Private Critics

The goal for your program is to have your players and coaches that are huge fans of the program in public while having the freedom to criticise the program behind closed doors (for more on this concept click here).


Privately, you want your team members to have the courage to speak out and engage in lively debate about what is BEST for the team. But once you leave that meeting room or office, you want everyone to be united in whatever direction you have decided to go.


Here are 4 guidelines for embracing constructive conflict on your team


(1) Start with Your Leaders

Give your leaders (i.e. coaches, captains, upperclassmen) the most opportunity to approach you with ideas about how the team can improve. Once you get on the same page they can set the tone for everyone else.


(2) Avoid Public Conflict

If you see a player or coach get frustrated during the course of a practice or game, avoid confronting the issue in the moment. Most of the time this turns out to be “destructive conflict” not “constructive conflict”. Address the by asking the player or coach to meet with you at a later time which will give you both time to process and cool-down from whatever emotions are present.


(3) Rip off the Bandaid

Good leaders are able to recognize when someone is hiding their emotions and lacking emotional honesty. When you see this, its time to rip off the bandaid. When a bandaid is left on too long the skin underneath it starts to shrivel up and die. If you can get through the pain of ripping off the bandaid, your skin can breath and start to heal. In the same way, if you have to get over the pain of constructive conflict so the healing can start.


(4) Give others the Opportunity to Criticize You

As the leader you can set the tone for constructive conflict when you open up your own ideas to criticism and review. When everyone sees that there won’t be repercussions for “questioning” the leaders idea, they will be more confident to say what they really think. In the long run your team will be able to filter out bad ideas and harvest the good ones, which will raise your level of performance.


(for a PDF version of this post send me an email at


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Why Discipline Matters

This past Monday I wrote a piece on two landmark experiments that fundamentally shaped how we think about the concepts of willpower and self-discipline (check it out here). 


The infamous Marshmallow Experiment proved that our ability to delay immediate gratification in favor of a future good is a massive predictor of success. When we sacrifice present indulgence for future gains, we become happier, more productive people in the long-run.


The second study was based on Roy Baumeister’s chocolate and radish experiment which permanently altered the idea of how we use willpower to make disciplined decisions. Before Roy’s 1996 experiment, willpower was thought of as a skill.  


Instead, Baumeister found that our willpower is more analogous to a muscle. When you lift weights your muscles become tired and fatigued; willpower works the same way. Our willpower can become fatigued when we have to make a series of difficult decisions. Willpower depletion makes it difficult to maintain a high level of discipline.


Armed with this new understanding of the inner workings of willpower and self-discipline, let’s turn to the difficult task of applying this understanding in the context of our teams. 


To get a better idea of exactly how leaders can use this information to transform their teams, I’ve outlined the basic challenge that nearly every leader faces.


Basic Leadership Challenge (as it relates to discipline)

  • Teams are groups of individuals


  • Individuals often struggle with self-discipline


  • A lack of self-discipline is the root of many team problems


  • The most effective teams are a cohesive group of disciplined individuals


  • A disciplined culture is essential for success


Solution: Improve personal self-discipline that spills over to the larger team and creates a culture of discipline within the team.


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The game of basketball is all about decision making. Every coach I’ve ever played has preached the virtue of discipline. The disciplined teams are able to remain steady through the choppy waters of competition.


We are going to explore the specific strategies that you can use to positively influence your team’s ability to make self-disciplined decisions in critical situations. 


Here’s exactly what we’ll explore today:


  • The Positive Effects of Discipline
  • Specific Strategies to Combat Willpower Depletion
  • Growth Exercise: Learning from Starbucks


The Powerful Effects of Discipline

Truth be told, the power of discipline simply can not be overstated. Discipline is the structural integrity of every great organization. The skyscrapers of success are always supported by the nuts and bolts of discipline and without discipline those building simply cannot stand.


Here’s what legendary leadership author Jim Collins had to say in a recent interview about the importance of discipline:


“A great company is marked by a culture of discipline. A self-disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action. And when you begin to lose a culture of discipline, that is when you really start to fall.”


Discipline sustains, propels, and drives great teams to both take disciplined action and engage in disciplined thought. Creating a culture of discipline is more than a philosophical idea. Discipline has real, tangible, long-term benefits that are invaluable in creating a culture of sustained excellence.


Here are 5 specific ways that discipline can tangibly change your team:

1 – Productivity

  • A disciplined team is a highly productive team. Think about how discipline could affect each one of your basketball practices. The more your team stays disciplined in their execution, the less time the coach needs to stop practice to correct mistakes. The less time you have to stop practice, the more time you have to work on other parts of the game.


2 – Genuine Relationships

  • Teams build trust when they know their teammate is going to be disciplined in performing their role. Discipline breeds responsibility, responsibility builds trust, and trust is the foundation for great relationships.   


3 – Mission Focused

  • Disciplined people don’t sweat the small stuff so they can focus on the important issues. They keep first things first.


Here’s a golden nuggets of truth from one of my favorite authors C.S. Lewis:

“Put first things first and second things are thrown in. Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.”


4 – Culture Creators 

  • Disciplined individuals create a culture of discipline because they become the example for others to follow. Discipline is like the common cold, it spreads quickly and is difficult to stop.


5 – Future Growth 

  • In the long run, disciplined people are infinitely more valuable because of who they are going to become in the future. Disciplined people stay committed to their personal growth, and increase their future contributions to the team because of who they are going to become in the future.


Discipline has the power to transform your team, but creating a culture of discipline is difficult. We are going to look at some specific strategies that every leader can use to preemptively combat a lack of discipline. 


Specific Strategies to Combat Willpower Depletion

Willpower is the gas tank that fuels our self discipline. But we learned from Monday’s piece that certain activities can quickly deplete our willpower.


Based on scientific research (much of which is present in Duhigg’s book the Power of Habit), here are 3 specific strategies to fight willpower depletion and maintain self-discipline.


1. Pre-commitment

As the field of research dealing with willpower and discipline has expanded, researchers have looked at people from all walks of life to give them clues about what factors could influence our willpower. 


In one experiment, scientists from Scotland took a group of elderly people who were recovering from recent hip or knee replacements. They wanted test the notion of “pre-commitment” as it relates to maintaining discipline in a given task.


Some of the participants in the study were given journals while others were left to approach their rehab in whatever way they felt was best. The participants with the journals, were told to write down specific strategies for how they would deal with the inevitable difficulties associated with their rehab.


One of the biggest problems that affects elderly people recovering from a major surgery, is their ability to overcome the pain and inconvenience that comes with having a knee or hip replacement at an old age. Staying consistent with rehabilitation is often a difficult and strenuous task. 


After the journals had been passed out, researchers found that the participants who wrote down specific strategies for dealing with difficult problems had a much higher rate of recovery. 


For example, one participant knew that every time he stood up from the sofa he would inevitably experience a shooting pain down the front of his knee. This pain would cause him to be tempted to sit back down immediately – it was important that he moved around the house during the day instead of sitting down, movement was key in his recovery process. His strategy for dealing with his “couch scenario” was to immediately take a step forward away from the couch. 


Researchers learned that the participants who simply committed beforehand to a specific series of actions were more likely to follow through. Rather than relying on your willpower to help you make decisions in the heat of the moment, making the decision ahead of time greatly increases your chance for success. A pre-commitment to stay disciplined during a specific circumstance gives you a greater chance of keeping your willpower muscle strong because you have already done the hard work of making the decision.


2. Eliminate the Decision

Making difficult mental decisions taxes your willpower muscles. But if you can eliminate the conscious act of making the decision yourself, you have a better chance of staying disciplined. Here are two effective ways to take the decision-making load off your shoulders.


Turn Your Decision into a Habit

Our brains naturally create habits in an attempt to maximize mental efficiency by turning off the conscious decision-making parts of our brain and putting our mind on autopilot. The less decisions you have to make, the stronger your willpower will be.


Turn whatever behavior you are trying to change into a habit by creating a cue, routine, reward loop for that action (more on that here).


Group it

Teams of people can help avoid “willpower depletion” by spreading the decision-making responsibilities across a number of people. When others share the burden of making tough choices, you will be better equipped to tackle the difficult challenges of life. 


3. Frame the Decision

Our natural learning process is rooted in our ability to relate something that is unfamiliar to something that we understand. Often this is best done using pictures or analogies.


In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit he talks about how Starbucks framed their customer service protocol using the simple acrostic, LATTE (Listen, Acknowledge, Take-Action, Thank, Explain). 


This was brilliant for two reasons.


First, they used the concept of pre-commitment by identifying the exact inflection points that every Starbucks employee deals with when they encounter a difficult customer. They gave their employees a detailed roadmap with specific checkpoints that could be easily followed whenever they were dealing with a customer service issue.


Second, they framed the acronym into a concept everyone was familiar with: a coffee drink. The coffee drink acronym wrapped a boring customer service mandate into a easily digestible morsel of information. This simple, yet powerful tool helped reinforce a culture of customer service in a way that is easy to conceptualize and remember. 


Growth Exercise 

Learning from Starbucks

You can use the same process Starbucks created to implement its customer service policy within your basketball team. There are hundreds of different scenarios that you could address – these literally could be anything, whether in practice, games, individual workouts, weight room sessions – so feel free to explore the possibilities of giving your team an easy to follow roadmap through these inevitable points of resistance. 


Part 1 – Pick a Situation

Ex. The opposing team goes on a scoring run during the game.


Part 2 – Identify the Inflection Points

Think of this as identifying the checkpoints in the emotional journey going on inside your players heads – just as Starbucks could predict what types of problems their employees would face, you need to identify these same inflection points for your players.

  • They start scoring
  • The game feels like its getting away
  • You can feel frustration or disappointment
  • Panic can set in


Part 3 – Use a word picture as a Pre-Commitment

This can be an acrostic, an analogy, a metaphor, a word picture, really anything that is easy to remember and conveys your central message. 

Ex. Whenever the other team goes on a run, remember to simply BALL


B – back to basics (return to the fundamentals)

A – attack on D (raise the energy level on defense to shift the momentum of the game)

L – link together (don’t try to change the game by yourself, stay together)

L – light a fire (inspire your teammates through great energy and focus)




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The Brilliance of Michigan State’s Tom Izzo

The Brilliance of Tom Izzo

I knew what I knew when we were a 7 seed and we were struggling a little bit. I knew what I knew now [that we’ve made it to the Final Four]. We weren’t as bad as they thought when we were there. And we’re not as good as they think now. I don’t worry about those things. Twitter has caused it where those things are so second to second. The only problem I have is making sure my kids don’t believe whatever they say, because they either think they’re too damn good or they’re too damn bad. I don’t like it either way.

– Tom Izzo

(on his team after they made the Final Four)


The Master of March 

Tom Izzo is without question the greatest March Madness coach in the history of college basketball.

Here’s why:

Recently Fivethirtyeight broke down the number of wins that every college coach has won in comparison to what their were seeded. The higher the seed, the more games they were expected to win.

According to Michigan State’s seeding over the years they were expected to win 30.2 games in the tournament. But Izzo has exceeded that number by winning a staggering 46.4 tournament games, a difference of 16.2. The next highest differential in tournament games won verse expected wins is Rick Pitino at 11.9.

Izzo just clinched his 7th trip to the Final Four which ties him with Rick Pitino and Roy Williams. That group only trails the likes of Coach K, Dean Smith, and John Wooden for most trips to the Final Four.

Izzo rarely gets the same amount of big-time recruits that programs like Kentucky and Duke get, yet he is still successful in March year after year.

How does he do it?

Here are 4 specific principles that makes Izzo successful. 


1. He Prioritises the Process 

  • Izzo was recently on a nationally syndicated radio program and was asked about his team’s consistent greatness when it comes to playing in March. What he said might surprise you. He didn’t talk about “peaking at the right time” but rather about how to team approaches the beginning of the season.
  • A lot of high profile teams will play a cupcake schedule at the beginning of the year to inflate their record as they head into conference play. The Spartans do the exact opposite. Their athletic director signs them up for some of the most “out of the box”/challenging environments that a team can face. Just in the past few years, the Spartans have traveled overseas, played on a aircraft carrier, and constantly are challenging the best teams in the country at the start of the season.
  • As a result of this strategy the Spartans usually take a couple of losses early in the season; of all the Final Fours they’ve made the Spartans are always the team with the most losses. If Izzo was worried about his record, he wouldn’t sign his teams up for these games. Instead Izzo cares deeply about the process his team needs to go through to reach their potential.
  • The regular season is the time for the team to grow and mature so that they build a foundation for post-season play. Tournament games are often decided by a few points, and the compeition that Izzo subjects his team to during the regular season, allows them to play with confidence in March.
  • Izzo knows that even if they take some lumps early, the long-term benefits will outweigh the early losses. Ultimately, those experiences will galvanise his players for the ultimate test in March. Often his teams get knocked down and suffer in the national rankings, but in the end they learn what it takes to compete against the best, and when March rolls around Tom Izzo’s teams are better prepared than anybody for the difficult road ahead.


2. He Preaches and Lives a Model of Accountability 

  • At the beginning of every season Izzo has all of his players write down their personal goals and team goals on an index card. He then keeps all of these index cards in his office during the season. If there ever comes a time when a player’s actions are failing to live up to the standards that will help them reach their goals, Izzo will bring out the card and have a conversation with them. The accountability is a two way street: the players set the standard initially and Izzo makes sure they live up to those standards. This exercise creates an atmosphere of accountability which everyone is forced to be a part of.

3. He is Brutally Realistic

  • In the quote at the beginning of the email Izzo talks about living in that space between arrogance (thinking you are better than you are) and self-deprication (thinking you are worse than you are). When you can take a realistic approach to objectively assessing your team then you can do two things well. First, you can play to your teams strengths and learn to hide their weaknesses. Second, you can find ways to improve on the areas you need to get better in. 

4. He gets Seniors to Buyin to the Team

  • During the middle of this season Izzo decided to pull Travis Trice one of his senior guards from the starting lineup. When asked about how he communicated the change this is what he had to say:
“That was really a concern. I have a good relationship with my player. I called him and I told him. I didn’t surprise him. I didn’t say you’re not starting because you played like … even though he had a couple games like that. I called his dad and let him know what was going on. If there was an elephant in the room, I’m going to address the elephant and that kind of saves you in situations like this. I told him that. 


  • Izzo was straightforward and honest with his communication which allowed Trice to respect him through the process (even if he didn’t like or agree with the decision). Trice bought into the decision and the Spartans have made yet another improbably run to the Final Four.

Application: Lead like Izzo

Here are four practical suggestions for you to consider as you think about ways to help your team grow:

1. The Golden Rule of “Process as Priority”

Use the golden rule of “process as priority” as a grid through which you make all major decisions for your ball club. Coaches have a lot of decisions to make when it comes to they team and often they have no grid on which to run their decisions through. Every decision you make should align with the “process as priority” slogan. Don’t get caught up making decisions based on short term outcomes. Do what’s best for your team in the long run.


2. Live in the Space between Reality and Self-Deprication

Communicate with your team in a way that highlights the reality of a situation while never becoming self-deprecating. For example, if your team struggles with taking charges you could track how many charges you take in practice and post those numbers after practice with some kind of incentive to reinforce that behavior. You wouldn’t want to just yell and scream at your team to “do it better” you have to find a way to communicate the truth and a need for growth without making it personal. 


3. Create Systems of Accountability

Just as Izzo has every one of his player write down their goals before the season, find a way to encourage buy-in from everyone on the team. Draft a team mission statement, create a team crest or slogan, print up quotes and hang them around the locker room, etc etc. Find a way to create an environment of accountability so that everyone feels a part of something bigger than themselves.

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