Fostering teamwork: It's not about you



Commentary by Maj. James Bartran, flight commander
36th Student Squadron, Squadron Officer College


12/14/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Al  -- Henry Ward Beecher once stated, "No man is more cheated than the selfish man." Individualism, entitlement, self-servitude and egotism well ingrained in our personalities are cancers to team development. The cure rests in selflessness, genuine caring of others and a strategic mindset.
The implementation of these traits requires thought.

A great team is greater than the sum of its parts. How do you build such a team? How do leaders foster team development and cohesiveness?

Great teams take time, work, and most of all, strong relationships ... real relationships. However, in today's anti-analytical, distant culture that demands instant gratification, we expect results to just happen.

We should approach team development in a way that is less like social media, where one has a sense of control and can manage social interactions, and more like a friendship with all its intangible imperfections and unexpected synergies. What follows are thoughts on fostering this type of team.

It's not about you

We all have a propensity to think we live in a bubble. You don't.

As a leader, this truth carries more importance for you. Whatever your career ambitions, personal problems or insecurities, fostering teamwork demands equality. Each person or role has its place, and they are self-defined based on the team dynamic, creating balance.

This holistic mindset closely matches "the long grey line," as stated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. All players have a place where they add the most value. This balance requires a degree of selflessness, and our mission sets require us to hold true or risk failure as a nation, Air Force, team and individually.

Walk the walk

Your actions speak louder than your words, and this truth is no less relevant while fostering teamwork. When leading a team, remember the importance of holding high standards from the simplest of requirements, such as uniform wear, to the demands of highly detailed missions.

No one can truly know your mindset, your motivations, aspirations and thoughts, but they can know how you chose to behave, dress and act and your true character. This becomes the bedrock for fostering teamwork. This leaves little mystery as to where people stand, which in turn allows them to branch out and begin their journey as a team. Finally, this helps the team in role clarity, eliminating the individual mindset. In its place, individuals begin thinking they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Relationships mean everything

During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the foundational relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Organizations pale in importance to the brothers and sisters beside you during hardship. This identification, in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more.

Imagine for a moment that your commander orders you to take on a highly undesirable task. Imagine the difference in your willingness to take on this task based on your loyalty to the people you serve. Trusting one another and, in turn, developing real relationships will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives.

Simply put, interaction fuels action. The most important leadership behavior to remember: you must uphold and foster trust between you and your team members. Failing to do so will result in breaking that trust and the team.

Vision is important

Without vision, your people will lack direction, focus and purpose. Vision takes one's eyes off of individual concerns and focuses the team, giving them confidence. This fosters teamwork on a number of levels.

While seemingly attainable, a true vision lies just beyond achievable. When the team accomplishes things it didn't at first believe possible during its journey to achieve the vision, everyone's confidence is boosted and team development is furthered.

It also puts the team on the same page and focuses efforts. This in turn demonstrates that everyone desires the same thing, creating buy in.

Fostering teamwork happens naturally for some, I believe, because they behave selflessly and sacrifice personalities that put the team, not the individual, first. Our Air Force and our Airmen should be reminded of these ideas.

Our culture fuels the antithesis of these laudable traits. It's time for us as an Air Force to remind each other that we are held to something higher because our team protects something so much more important than ourselves. The fragility of our sacred freedoms demands that we forget about ourselves, foster teamwork and achieve things greater than the sum of our individuality.