The making of a dream team: lessons in teamwork from the Ryder Cup

The Ryder Cup is arguably the biggest team event in international sport.

Perhaps the greatest comeback in sporting history happened two years ago in Chicago, when the European team won the Ryder Cup after being comprehensively outplayed for the first two days.

Fascination with the event is no doubt enhanced by the fact that golf is the most individual, self-centred of sports. Yet for one week every two years Europe and the United States compete in an event that demands genuine teamwork. So how can the best players in the most ego-centric of sports combine to produce teamwork that organisations can only dream of ? The following are four characteristics of elite teams that are epitomised by the Ryder cup:

Shared vision and dedication 

Successful teams bring together team members to work passionately with focus and intent for a common cause. The 2012 European team were galvanised by the memory of Seve Ballesteros, a Ryder Cup legend who had died the previous year. With his name sewn into their team kit, the team wore blue and white on the final day, the colours synonymous with great Spaniard. Urged to play in the spirit of Seve – never giving up, it was perhaps this focus that helped the team to overcome a 4 point deficit on the final day.

Colin Montgomerie and Tiger Woods depict two players with contrasting outlooks on the concept of shared vision. In 2004 an exhausted Montgomerie asked Captain Langer to leave him out of the afternoon session on day two for the good of the team. In contrast, Woods pointedly noted during an interview that Jack Nicklaus total Ryder Cup points are less easily remembered than how many majors he had won. For Tiger, individual achievement surpasses that of the team. Complete dedication to the team involves subordinating one’s own objectives to that of the team’s.

Strong team leadership

Ryder Cup captains have enormous influence over the event’s outcome. From the picking of wildcards, to daily team selection and a host of other responsibilities, the importance of leadership is paramount.

Leadership styles vary hugely – contrast Bernhard Langer and Seve, yet both had a common skill, that of ensuring their teams believed they cared about them. Paul McGinley has recounted the lengths Sam Torrance went to in 2002 to prepare him mentally and build his confidence when he was out of form.

The key to team members feeling valued, is simply to value them. Spend time with them, understanding what makes them tick. What are their needs, fears, aspirations and concerns? If you believe you value your team, yet they do not feel valued, it’s a fair bet you do not value them. If you have little interest in your team, then you may wish to question your suitability for leadership.

Effective leadership is often distributed in nature. In 2008 Paul Azinger adopted the ‘pod’ system used by US special forces, splitting his team into three groups of four, with a leader in each. Langer in 2004 had three deputies, with Colin Montgomerie the leader of the playing staff. In rugby, the New Zealand All Blacks adopted this dual-management approach in order to enhance the team’s motivational climate from 2004 onwards, culminating in winning the world cup in 2011.

Cohesive unit

A shared sense of purpose combined with strong leadership fosters a sense of cohesiveness, which is built upon trust and respect. Trust and respect allow for conflicts to be managed well.

Sir Alex Ferguson met the European team this week for a motivational talk. The former Manchester United manager’s summation that the way to build success is to “get rid of the c***s” is well known. He was referring to only having team players with the appropriate attitude, which in essence is about being committed to a team ethic. Attitude also refers to one’s resilience and ability to take feedback, as well as a passion for learning and never giving in.

Create an environment for success

Tony Jacklin transformed how the European team prepared for the Ryder Cup. Prior to 1983 there was no team room, or uniform and the players were not allowed to take their own caddies. Jacklin changed the entire approach, which included insisting on the team flying Concorde. This raised the players games, and in 1985 they won the Cup for the first time in 28 years.

Creating the appropriate environment, ensuring your team has all the resources it needs to perform has two effects. It not only boosts the motivational climate within the team, increasing the sense of feeling valued. It also creates high-performance expectations, setting a challenge for standards to be achieved.

Great teams are built upon a common set of values with a purpose that transcends individual monetary rewards or accomplishments. Rather than treating people the same, peoples differences should be embraced and an environment cultivated that maximises the chance of each team member achieving success. Team USA’s shared vision in 2014 is ‘redemption’ for Medinah 2012. Sunday afternoon will reveal if this was sufficient to galvanise Tom Watson’s team to win the Cup for only the third time in ten attempts.

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