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Last week, Australia was faced with the rather unpalatable news that the Australian swimming team, or more specifically certain male members of the team, had been behaving with less-than Olympic standards during the team’s underwhelming performance at the 2012 London Olympics.

This revelation came hot on the heels of The Bluestone Review: A review of culture and leadership in Australian Olympic Swimming, which was released earlier this month.

The seven-page executive summary makes for very interesting reading and is testimony to the importance of leadership and teamwork, even in such an intensely individual sport as swimming.

Although completely different pursuits, swimming and agency recruitment have a lot in common.

In both, ‘star’ individual performance receives massive attention yet the performance of ‘lesser’ team members is an important component of building a winning culture.

In both, there are clear measures of high performance and a very visible scorecard that shows whether that high performance is being accomplished, or not.

In both, there are big egos and unchecked inappropriate behaviour by ‘stars’.

As was seen by the performance of the Australian swimming team in London (1 Gold Medal, 6 Silver, 3 Bronze) which delivered the same  number of gold medals as those world swimming powerhouses, Tunisia and Lithuania, there was something very wrong with the team culture that contributed to such a massively disappointing team performance.

Here’s what The Bluestone Review said within its executive summary:

About the culture:

‘… the (Australian team) culture did not appear to assist or support high-level performance for most people.’

‘… in the midst of an Olympic Games that was widely regarded as excellent, the Australian swim team were considered underperformers and culturally questionable.’ 

About the focus on winning versus respect and quality relationships:

‘It seems that the most significant issue in swimming was the quietly growing lack of focus on people across the board. Participants reported that in the zealous and streamlined attempts to obtain gold medals, the delicate management of motivation, communication, and collaboration were lost. The ‘science’ of winning appeared to whitewash the ‘art’ of leadership. Winning was viewed too mechanistically and the value of quality relationships, respect and shared experience was underrated.’

About individual needs versus team needs:

‘Both athletes and coaches wanted and needed something fresh and this came in the form of increased flexibility to run individual or small group preparations in different locations and at different times. This strategy had many upsides for the individuals, but also many downsides for the team. Some review respondents have suggested that instead of resulting in increased independence, the outcome was an increase in individualism, and in turn a  diminished sense of responsibility or connectedness to the team.’

About the lack of consequences for poor behaviour:

‘The consequence was an undertone of divisions, now and then, us and them, men and women, the best and the rest. Poor behaviour and disrespect within the team were not regulated or resisted strongly by other team members, and it was left unchecked or without consequence by staff and coaches on a number of occasions. Some individual incidents of unkindness, peer intimidation, hazing and just ‘bad form’ as a team member that were escalated to personal coaches were not addressed and had no further consequence.’

About the lack of individual leadership:

‘It seems that there was a lack of authority (including moral authority) within the group, which occasionally peaked in a mood where the boldest took centre stage. At its least attractive, the team dynamic became like a schoolyard clamour for attention and influence.’

About the lack of collective leadership:

‘There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breeched agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breeching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers. No such collective action was taken.’

I think there is a massive lesson in this for all groups of people, companies, or teams that have, either deliberately or not, some form of star system where certain members of the group receive a  disproportionate share of attention, and frequently, rewards.

As I highlighted six weeks ago (The grass is not greener: Why star recruits rarely shine) the foundations of individual high performance are laid by many other factors beyond the individual’s effort and skills.

Leaders who forget this and consequently pander to the whims of their team’s ‘stars’ are unintentionally sowing the seeds of the whole team’s long-term underperformance (at best) or failure (at worst).

How strong is your culture, really?

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MYO Swimwear

I think the fact that they didn't particularly have one of their better showings, makes the media and public want to find a reason all the more. I can't understand why you would not be 100% focused when you have spent the last 4 years preparing for it.

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