Australian swimming review: How an unchecked ‘star’ culture destroys a team

 

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 of common ground.

 

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 behavior 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).

1 Comment

  1. MYO Swimwear on 25/06/2013 at 2:40 pm

    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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