Team Players

July 31, 2016

I have been asking myself, what it means to be a team player lately. By definition, a team player is “someone who cares more about helping a group or team to succeed than about his or her individual success” (Merriam-Webster).  We all know good sportsmanship among team players does not apply solely to members of a sports team. Work places are team settings too. Organizations will even use “teamwork” as part of qualifications to join their team.  But what does it really mean? A clear distinction of this has been demonstrated over the last two weeks as I watched both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. (Wait for it… No, I am not about to go on a political rant. In no way do my observations and analyses below reflect my political views, I am simply making conceptual connections to current realities, and exercising political empathy simultaneously. Indulge me for a few minutes.)

In the primaries, it seems that the last two rivals left standing have been the most contentious candidates, so much so that the media coverage makes us believe that the party is divided. It takes the convention to unify the party in order to move towards the bigger battle of the general election. And they must go forward in unity, as one party, one team if they are to win the election. This unity is important to demonstrate to the public a united front, despite how fractured the foundation might be. For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton clearly had the votes over Bernie Sanders even before the convention; however, it was vitally important for the party – for the team – that Sanders publicly demonstrate his support for Hillary and will play a key role in encouraging his supporters to support her as well. Bernie Sanders is a team player. More importantly, Sanders speech was not riddled with meaningless platitudes of support for Hillary; it was very clear that he cares more about the success of the Democratic party winning the election than the possibility of individual success, now or in the future.

On the other hand, during the RNC, the biggest uproar of the convention was when Ted Cruz did not encourage his supporters nor express his public support for Donald Trump. Instead, he encouraged voters to “vote their conscience”. Whatever one makes of this statement (and the political pundits have plenty), it is quite clear that Cruz felt compelled to make a stand for himself. For whatever reasons or future agenda he has, he was not standing in unity with the current party, nor the team. In this sense, Ted Cruz is not a team player with the RNC. However, I can’t help but admire Cruz’s audaciousness.

It is not always easy being a team player. As fun and exciting as it is to belong to a team, many times, it takes sacrifice. We give up pieces of ourselves, our own ambitions, our personal goals for the sake of the team or to be a good team player. This is of course what public service means. It is what serving in the military means. The team, the mission, is more important than our own. Sometimes, and maybe all too often, we forget that servanthood or having the heart of a servant is central to being a team player. Similarly, Patrick Lencioni claims humility is the central one of the three essential virtues (humble, hungry, and smart) of an Ideal Team Player.  Sometimes, I go through periods of struggling to be a good team player that coincides with what Seth Godin calls “dips, a temporary setback that will get better as you keep pushing”.  At work, I see good team players, fun and willing to be engaged. I see some not-so-good ones. I see some struggle and often need encouragement. I have even witnessed some go from good team players then spiral downwards. I listen to those who talk and share with me. I will even ask some whom I know have good intentions, but are just too “me-focused” to reach out and do something for another teammate. As fun as all of it is on most days, there are days that I feel parts of my soul just dies while staying with this team.  It is harsh to admit this because of my investment, but work is admittedly sometimes soul-crushing. Not long ago, I was called out by my own teammate that I was not living up to the concept of team that I was espousing so much at work. (Talk about soul-crushing, that was a wake up call.) Of course, I took this personally. I should, right?  How can I talk about teamwork and not be a good team player?  How can I do better at becoming an IDEAL team player?

In The Dip, Seth talks about being the best in the world at something, or specialization, and what I realized was that I struggled answering what I was the ‘best in the world at’?

“The people who are the best in the world specialize at getting really good at the questions they don’t know.”  -Seth Godin

What am I the best in the world at doing…being? I have been asking myself these questions over and over again… until it finally clicked – the latter question was an answer to the former. In other words, I could become the best in the world at being not just a good team player, but the BEST IDEAL TEAM PLAYER. That would be remarkable.

“To be a superstar, you must do something exceptional. Not just survive the Dip, but use the Dip as an opportunity to create something so extraordinary that people can’t help but talk about it, recommend it, and, yes, choose it.” Seth Godin

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2 thoughts on “Team Players

  1. What if you and your team are repeatedly punished for being team players. Meaning the more you work to help others, the more you are relied upon, the more responsibilities you are given, the more you are stepped on and abused by non team players. All the work is pushed onto you and your team but when you recommend something, want to work on something important, or really need help it is dismissed repeatedly. Anytime you say no because you believe it is the right thing to do you are called out for not being team players. Now that is truly soul crushing. What do you then when encouragement no longer works, frustration sets in, and your team no longer feels valued? Being a team player is looked at in a negative light.

    Resentment has set in and the team believes the organization has morphed into political, time-wasting, ever changing processes bureaucracy that no longer provides much value. Push paper, have meetings, answer the same questions over and over, make no decisions…Rinse and repeat

    How do you turn it around? Or at some point do you just move on because you no longer believe.


    1. I highly recommend you read The Dip by Seth Godin. If you can answer the questions raised in that book, then you will understand whether you are simply in a Dip or a Cul-de-sac. There is a big difference and once YOU decide which it is, YOU can make the decision of what the next step should be… “moving on” is the only option, in my opinion. You don’t want to be stuck in a dip or a cul-de-sac, but YOU decide how and what you move on to. Thank you for your passion and response.


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