In every meeting and presentation this week, there was a common theme: teams. A leader can operate in isolation, but a leader succeeds as part of a team. It’s not by accident that I’ve been thinking so much about teams—this week I listened to “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry,” a fascinating book authored by veteran sportswriter Joan Ryan.
In the book, Ryan delves into the concept of team chemistry, unlocking what it means—scientifically, communally and mathematically—to have the it factor as a team. Drawing from a range of disciplines—including neuroscience, sociology and psychology—her work explores the subcultures of sports teams to reveal what exactly it was that made them win.
My favorite part of the book was, of course, about my baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, and her reporting in San Francisco “where an improbable collection of misfits and castoffs triggered the start of a World Series.” In general, Ryan explains how team chemistry equals high performance and high performance equals a win.
Now back to San Francisco, where Giants pitcher Mike Krukow is waiting for Kevin Mitchell, the latter of whom had just joined the team. “Glad I don’t have to see your mug at the plate anymore,” Krukow told his new teammate jokingly. And so the chemistry (and friendship) began …
Ryan described how Giants newbie Mitchell once saw Krukow and his teammates shooing reporters out of the clubhouse as a player yelled, “Kangaroo court!” The players gathered their stools together and “held court,” or voiced their infractions against other players for the court to assess and fine. (Most teams during this time held similar kangaroo courts.)
“In some clubhouses, judges wore mops as wigs like clownish barristers,” Ryan writes. “The best courts were both hilarious and merciless. It was open season on complainers, who drew the most outrageous charges and biggest fines.”
As a mechanism for team chemistry, these kangaroo courts sent a message to players: If you complain, you’ll get mocked. It created a tougher team through humor, without the strict confines of guidelines. People complied by social pressure, not by an organizationally mandated rule. (Actions subject to fine included such misgivings as getting a flat tire on the way to the ballpark, missing a steal sign or being friendly to an opposing player before a game.)
Non-traditional as it was, the kangaroo court worked, and it created closer bonds between the players as they mockingly scolded their comrades.
This connection was put on full display during Mitchell’s first season with the Giants. It was mid-September of 1987 and the Padres, Mitchell’s former team, were in town to play. In the batting cages before the game began, Padres starting pitcher Ed Whitson lightheartedly told Mitchell that if he didn’t watch out “he might plant a fastball in his ribcage.”
Mitchell laughed at the remark but Krukow, who heard it as a threat against his teammate, wasn’t laughing. In the bottom of the first inning, the Giants hit a home run off Whitson just before Mitchell stepped up to the plate. Ryan describes the scene this way: “Whitson wasted no time. He hit Mitch on the back with the first pitch. Mitch took it without response. He dropped his bat, pulled off his batting gloves and trotted to first base.”
During the second inning, as Krukow stood on the mound, his back started to spasm. When the signal came for a reliever, Krukow shook it off; he stayed right where he was, ready for his next batter. The Padres’ Chris Brown stepped up to the plate and Krukow looked at Mitchell (who was at the time playing third base) and said, “This one’s for you, Mitch.”
As Ryan describes it, the next pitch hit Brown “as if he were a target in a carnival game.”
Mitchell couldn’t acknowledge he knew what Krukow did for him without incurring the stiff (and very real, non-kangaroo) fine of an intentionally thrown wild pitch. But Mitchell cherished the photo he kept of Krukow, his face in pain, as he walked off the mound.
For Ryan, the function of team chemistry is to heighten the overall performance of the team. All the jokes that are told, the acts of mutual support, the secret handshakes and the off-subject conversations on late-night bus rides and early-morning plane trips are performance mechanisms to help a team collectively succeed. Ryan says, “Team chemistry is an interplay of psychological, social and emotional forces that elevates performance.”
One of the things we do to build team chemistry with our CEOs at HomeServices of America is to pair them with an accountability partner who they speak with on a daily basis. The purpose of this accountability partner is first and foremost to create a cadence of accountability among them, but it’s also to strengthen their bonds of camaraderie and solidify our own team chemistry. Team chemistry doesn’t necessarily come from the structured conversations or business meetings; its recipe is derived from the in between, those conversations that happen when you aren’t talking about business. Team chemistry is heightened when you discuss your favorite sports team or your child’s birthday celebration, the latest book you’ve read or listened to, or your favorite food to BBQ on a warm, summer night. That‘s when team chemistry forms because you’re building the connective tissue of mutual respect, interest and conversation that will create everlasting bonds of friendship. Teams that are closer always perform better. It’s basic chemistry.
So, what’s the message? As Ryan says, you know team chemistry when you have it. Team chemistry lifts you higher than you ever thought possible, it is the difference between second place and the win. Why? Because team chemistry means respect, support and trust. It means undeniable belief. And when you’re surrounded by people who believe in you, you simply can’t help but believe in yourself, too.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.