Creating Unexpected Wins: Leadership Lessons from “Team Short People”

[Guest Post*]   Everyone loves an underdog story, but much of the time, we only perceive the underdogs as such because we are overlooking the strengths that really matter. In the story of David and Goliath, the fact is, much of David’s unexpected win boils down to the fact that his sling was more powerful than his adversary realized.

Today I am going to tell you another underdog story from my time as a trail worker in Colorado. Through it, I will show you how to see your team’s strengths for what they really are, create a more balanced team dynamic, and set yourself up for more unexpected wins.

Goliaths of the world beware.

Creating Unexpected Wins: Leadership Lessons from "Team Short People"

One Summer, 11,000 ft Above Sea Level…

During the summer of 2016, I served on a trail crew with the South-West Conservation Corps in Salida, Colorado. If you have ever been hiking up a mountain trail and wondered to yourself, “how did they get those railroad ties all the way up here?” well, we were the answer.

It was hard and rewarding work that pushed every member of our eight-person team to the limit. But that, of course, is where you learn the most about yourself, and the people around you.

On one occasion, we were adding a flight of wooden box steps to a section of trail near Telluride, which required us to carry several 200+ pound logs along a mountain trail. Each log was long enough to accommodate four people lifting it, and since there were eight members on our team the math, was pretty simple. The question was how to divide the labor.

In the end, the teams were decided by height, and the results left the crews apparently lopsided. The taller group just so happened to have both of the team leaders, most of our strongest individuals, and three of the four men. I was in fact the only guy to wind up on “Team Short People” — a name that we quickly adopted more out of preemptive self pity than anything else.

The taller crew quickly shouldered their log and began to move out, putting it down for a brief rest after about 70 yards. Expecting that we would not make it much more than half that distance, our crew hoisted up our log and moved out. When we made it to the half way point we did a quick verbal check in and everyone seemed to be doing fine. Encouraged, we pushed on.

With every step we took, the log got heavier, but we soon realized that we were going to be able to make it almost as far as the first crew had. So naturally, we pushed harder, and managed to set our log down five feet beyond where they had stopped — just to spite them.

After a few seconds of groaning and allowing the blood to return to our arms, our crew was all high fives and smiles. We had made it just as far as our stronger, taller counterparts, but we could not account for why.  That was until we watched them try to pick up their log to begin the second leg.

We quickly realized that the pertinent factor was not how tall they were, but how much taller some of them were than the others. Their heights ranged from 5’9’’ to almost 6’6’’, meaning that at any given time it was hard for more than two people to meaningfully contribute to supporting the log.

By comparison, the four of us were all relatively close in height. Once we realized this unexpected advantage we arranged ourselves from front to back in height order so that each person was carrying as close to an equal share of the weight as possible.

With our updated strategy in place we began our second movement, and this time we surpassed the first crew’s mark by a whole 30 yards! As we passed them we called out, “Team Short People for the win!” No longer a cry of self deprecation, this name was a testament to the advantage that our similarly short statures gave us.

After some more minor adjustments, we perfected our technique, and ended up arriving at our destination a full 10 minutes before the other crew.

Creating Unexpected Wins

Is this yet another classic story of the underdogs beating out a superior opponent? To the trained eye, no.

From the start we were better suited to the task that we had been given. Our comparative lack of individual strength was made up for by the fact that we could distribute our load much more evenly, which ended up being the decisive factor in this task of endurance. Although our success appeared unlikely, it really should not have been surprising.

So as a leader, how can you maximize your team’s unexpected strengths, and create more moment like this?

1 – Pay attention to what makes you different.

Often times, leaders will have some idealized vision of their perfect team in their heads. While having an idea of what success looks like is important, it can be all too easy to get so wrapped up in an unrealistic idea of who your team ought to be, that you miss out on the chance to use the strengths they already possess.

That is why it is so important to be especially attentive to the things that make your team unique. “Team Short People” got its name because we assumed that our height would make us inferior log carriers, when in reality it turned out to be the key to our success.

Leaders look for what makes their team unique. Click To Tweet

In particular, look for attributes or skills that several team members share, and help them find ways to use them to reach the team’s goals. This will have the added benefit of creating a powerful sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that the team’s success is rooted in their identity.

2 – Focus on balance, not individual strength.

 When assembling a team, or dividing up work among the members, it can be tempting to think from the top down — starting with the strongest individuals and then fitting the “weaker” members in at the end. This is one of the many bad lessons that we all learned from playing dodge ball as kids.

The better paradigm is to create teams that have complementary strengths, and can balance the workload most effectively.

The best team members have complementary strengths, not the same strengths. Click To Tweet

I was recently re-telling this story to a friend of mine, and she pointed out that this lesson is one that has not been taken to heart in the world of computer engineering. In recent years several companies have started initiatives to hire a more diverse array of engineers and computer scientists, but this has been met with substantial push back.

Usually the argument is that in trying to find more diverse candidates for any given job, companies will be passing up more qualified candidates, with more experience or better skill sets. However, as we have seen, creating a balanced and complementary team will set them up for unexpected wins, while vainly trying to hoard only the most talented individuals is just setting them up to get knocked down.

The Lesson of “Team Short People”

If you take nothing else from this story, hear this: when the chips are down and your team’s limits are really tested, it won’t be enough to simply muscle through the problem on brute strength alone.

That is why it is important to be constantly paying attention to what makes your team unique, and taking advantage of their complementary strengths. Your path to success may be surprising to some, but the deep joy of the unexpected win is knowing that you had the upper hand all along.

So keep your eyes open. Odds are that your team has a lot to be proud of, even if they have not realized it yet.

Thoughtfully yours,

Nathaniel Everett

P.S. Team Short People for the win!

* Nathaniel is an Eagle Scout, accomplished outdoorsman, and servant leader in his fourth year in Oregon pursuing degrees in Audio Production and Ministry.  Be sure to read his other guest post about the significance of autographing your work.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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