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Back to The Future: Team-Building Lessons from 1984 Back to The Future: Team-Building Lessons from 1984

Back to The Future: Team-Building Lessons from 1984

As first seen in Inside Indiana Business

Like Marty McFly in the 1980s classic Back to the Future, I recently had the opportunity to travel 30 years in the past - in my case to visit my hometown of Henderson, Kentucky, for a high school reunion for the class of '84. While I did not run into Doc Brown and my SUV will never be mistaken for a DeLorean, this serendipitous occasion reminded me of some eternal truths about what makes an effective team.

For those interested in building a stronger team environment in your workplace, place of worship, or other organization, fire up the flux capacitor and join me as we travel back to 1984!

Effective Teams Are Incubators of Talent

The dictionary definition of "incubator" is an apparatus used to maintain favorable temperatures and other conditions necessary to promote growth. Effective incubators focus not just on the short-term survival of their occupants, but on creating environments that turn potential into reality by spurring their development into what they are ultimately designed to become.

Although our hometown has fewer than 30,000 residents, I was amazed upon my return to discover what a remarkable collection of talented individuals my classmates had become – doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, filmmakers, Broadway performers, ministers, veterans, volunteers with the United Nations and Peace Corps, small business owners, educators, dedicated parents, and so on.

Of course, this was not the collection of people I remember going to school with all those years ago, but this is who our hometown incubator and their own dedication and hard work prepared them to become. We were blessed during our high school years with teachers, coaches, advisors, and bosses who challenged us to do our best, called out our strengths, and cultivated a sense in us that we were destined to do great things. Turns out, based on who my classmates became, they were right.

Effective Teams Have Followers Who Lead and Leaders Who Follow

Too many organizations today expect leaders to "drive change" and everyone else to simply follow directions. The result can be a dysfunctional splintering into factions of those who make decisions versus those who have to live with them.

My classmates reminded me how effective teams do the opposite. Like every team, we chose leaders who were expected to carry out certain official responsibilities. In reality, though, we discovered that often the best thing our elected class leaders could do was to get out of the way and let the unelected leaders – the ones who got things done – do their thing.

Our class was full of people with great ideas, enthusiasm, and a willingness to do things for which they got little public credit but enormous personal satisfaction. As proud as I am of my class, however, I suspect most organizations are full of people just like this. They simply need the opportunity to shine.

Effective Teams Encourage People Who Think Differently

Speaking as an employment lawyer, the focus on workplace diversity has been unquestionably positive to the extent it has helped remove arbitrary barriers to the advancement of talented individuals based on how they look. I sometimes wonder, however, if we have begun to define diversity too narrowly and forgotten about the diversity of thought that made our nation so inviting to those in search of intellectual, philosophical and religious liberty. There is a reason, after all, why the phrase E pluribus unum (out of many, one) was placed on our national seal.

This issue was brought to mind for me by one of my classmates who has gone on to become a minister and outspoken advocate for a number of progressive causes. Following our reunion, he expressed his surprise and delight that he was received so warmly by his classmates from our traditional Kentucky town – many of whom (including the more conservative author of this piece) undoubtedly have different views on the political, social and religious issues of the day.

The lesson I learned from this experience is not that our class is strong because we all agree on the issues championed by our classmate. Instead, we are strong because we recognize that the courage and passion that make him an effective champion for his causes make him a stronger member of our team and thereby make our team stronger.

Strong teams are composed of strong people with strong convictions. My class became a strong team not in spite of having people with different ideas, but precisely because we encouraged and valued it. Unanimity makes for shorter meetings, but teams that encourage thinking differently change the world.

As you return from 1984, consider these questions about how your own teams operate in 2014:

Do you challenge, call out, and cultivate individuals to reach their long-term potential?
Do you allow individual members to lead in their areas of strength, and are your leaders wise enough to know when to follow?
Do you encourage others to think differently?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," then to quote the immortal Biff Tannen, "Think, McFly, think." There's no time like the present to build a team for the future.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader must consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.
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