Over the past few months, it seems that every time I look up a famous quote online, I find posts that provide evidence that the person either never said it or that it came from someone else. For example, Aristotle never wrote the precise phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Misquoted). Nor did Darwin write, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change.” It turns out it’s a summation of Darwin’s theory that appeared in a management textbook. (Misattributed). The more you explore the origins of famous quotes, the more you’ll find how many of them fall into one of these two categories.
That said, countless people live by such quotations, and I think in the case of Aristotle and Darwin, both quotes capture the spirit and substance of their respective points of view. Whether a quote was massaged over time or attributed to a person worthy of the words, insightful and uplifting quotes permeate our lives.
Aristotle and Synergy
Google named its study on high-performing teams Project Aristotle in celebration of the above quote. It speaks to synergy, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” I’ve given synergy a great deal of thought lately and its connection to Peernovation, a word that combines “peer” (a person like you) and “innovation” (creativity realized). It occurs when a carefully selected, diverse collection of people with a common purpose and shared values work together to make each other better and create something larger than themselves.
My reflection on synergy was sparked by a recent request from one of my former graduate students for an academic recommendation. This particular student was outstanding. She consistently produced A-level work and, more impressively, made everyone else around her better. This ability to positively impact others is the difference between an excellent student and an outstanding one. The same holds for employees. The good ones perform at a high level. The great ones lift the entire team to new heights. In short, they create synergy by being great teammates.
How Great Teammates Do It
UConn Women’s Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma leads one of the most dominant college sports programs in the US. Auriemma says that finding high school players committed to being great teammates is more challenging than one might imagine. Yet, it remains essential when it comes to whether UConn extends an invitation for a player to join the team or not. So what does the whole being greater than the sum of the parts look like? I’ve seen designated team leaders and team members who step up to be leaders in their team influence others in the following five ways:
- They genuinely care about their teammates. Caring becomes currency when it comes to positively influencing and impacting others. If your fellow students or co-workers believe you care about something larger than yourself – purpose and other people – they will follow your lead.
- They set high standards. The trick here is that because they care, they don’t set standards that create distance between them and everybody else; they do so in a way that invites others along for the ride. For example, fellow actors from the movie A Few Good Men described Jack Nicholson’s participation in the table read of the script as game-changing. Nicholson didn’t just mouth the words; he delivered a full-throated performance, thus inviting everyone else to bring their very best from the start.
- They lead by example. In addition to setting high standards, they model daily behaviors that make achieving those standards possible. The elite players in any field are a product of talent and a relentless work ethic. For example, former teammates of Celtics great Larry Bird often commented on how Bird was the first to show up at practice and the last to leave. When the best player on the team engages in this type of modeling, it tacitly challenges others to do the same – to maximize their potential as a player for the team’s good. That’s how the best teams consistently compete for championships.
- Again, operating from a caring place, they balance challenging and supporting their colleagues to be their best. People accept being challenged if they believe you’re in it with them.
- They take the lead in celebrating the progress and accomplishments of their teammates. Recognition and rewards, delivered privately and publicly, can make a big difference in inspiring people to achieve new heights. Leadership scholars Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner call it “Encouraging the heart!”
If you’re a high-performing student or employee, ask yourself if, in addition to holding yourself to high standards and delivering great work, you also make your teammates better. If so, excellent. If not, consider the five ways you can make a positive difference in the lives of others and your team. Accept this challenge and experience what Poetic Voice Sekou Andrew espouses in one of my favorite quotes: “There is an incredible power that comes from surrounding yourself with communities in which you feel small among them, and they look at you like a giant.”
Written by Leo Bottary.
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