I’ve written about what it means to empower your team, to build relationships based on trust, to fuel team chemistry, and to remember that impressive teams are made up of impressive individuals… If you think you’re impressive, it means the person next to you on your team is impressive too—trust that. I’ve written about attitude and effort, and about knowing that we all have it within ourselves to push through. These are critical components for building high-functioning teams. But, let’s not overcomplicate things either, how does work ethic fit into the picture?
Champions that win all have an insane work ethic. You’ve probably heard that “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” Well, it’s true. Hard-working people will always beat the talented people who are lazy. But what happens when talented people choose to work hard? You get champions, you get the best leaders in the world, you get the most successful entrepreneurs, you get the best parents, you get the most generous philanthropists, you get the legends of our time.
Tiger Woods is talented, there’s no question, but he has the most intense work ethic in professional golf. He was one of, if not the first player on the PGA to introduce Olympic weight-lifting to his gym routine. He has created golf-specific exercises, and he just plain outworks everybody in his training and preparation. He swore by his insane workout routine at the height of his career. He changed the entire game because if players didn’t work at that level, there was no hope that they would keep up. He changed everything, and it only took one person to create that culture.
On my freestyle ski team when I was a kid, there was one skier in my memory who was talented but had an outlandish work ethic. His name was Justin Dorey, he would show up day-in-day-out and put in the effort. And he’d push it at the gym as hard as he would on the mountain. Justin went on to be one of the most accomplished half-pipe skiers in history, he was among the first group of men in the world to compete in the Olympics for halfpipe, and he’s been an innovator in the sport, creating more new tricks than anyone I can remember. Justin changed the culture of our team. We all worked harder because of him, myself included.
Tom Brady wasn’t the superstar that he is today when he joined the NE Patriots. He was not a great natural athlete, but he had that freakish work ethic and competitive drive that helped him to not only turn into the best quarterback but arguably the best football player of all time. Brady used to make it a competition about how early he could show up to the gym. Former Patriots safety, Rodney Harrison, said that Brady goaded him into working out at 5:30am by saying “good afternoon!” every time Harrison arrived at the gym at 6:30am. Soon the whole team was showing up early. In the process of turning himself into a legendary player, he turned his team into one of the best franchise teams in the history of the NFL, matched only by the Pittsburgh Steelers for Super Bowl wins. There are countless stories of Tom showing up early for training, early to the gym, early for video-review. He’d do extra workouts on top of a rigorous team training schedule. He was/is a freak, he loves the preparation, and guess what, he changed his team. Working hard became part of the Patriots’ mantra. Their championship team was built on work ethic!
The moral of Tiger, Justin, and Tom’s stories: it only takes one person to shift a team’s culture (or in Tiger’s case, the entire sport). You can create a climate where working hard is king. Everyone has it within themselves to make this shift. But sometimes you have to do a bit of digging in your memory banks to prove to yourself that you have what it takes. Everyone has an ah-ha moment or a time in your life when almost everything was stacked against you, but you pull through. How did you do it?
After my spinal cord injury I had a choice, yes I got to choose my attitude every day but more importantly, I got to choose my effort. I got to choose how hard I wanted to work towards my goals. And talk about goals… I wanted to walk again, I wanted to live an independent life again, I wanted to ski again, I want to be an athlete again! It wasn’t going to come easy. I was motivated beyond measure to take back my life, sure, but motivation is only part of the formula for success. I worked harder to recover from my spinal cord injury than I’d worked at anything in my life.
I’ll never forget the day in physiotherapy when I was learning to isolate my hip joints and practice engaging my stabilizer muscles so that I could learn to stand. You do this by kneeling on a foam pad and holding onto a wooden box in front of you to keep you balanced. Sounds straightforward right? The hard part, getting up to a tall kneeling position. I would start on my back on the physio mat, roll to my front, work my elbows back so that they were underneath my torso, then bring in my knees, so that I could push up to a table-top position. No problem, yea right… I was so weak!
I tried, and I tried, and I tried to bet to that table-top position. I failed over and over and over again, to a point where my physiotherapist said, “Mike, it’s okay if you can’t right now, you’re doing so well.” What was the only word I heard in that sentence? Can’t! I had a choice at that moment. I told myself, “I can do this.” I pushed as hard as I can, giving it everything I had with only fumes in the tank, and I made it up to table-top position before seconds later, collapsing onto the mat. I had taken one seemingly small but massive step forward in my recovery. The act of lifting myself up to the table-top position wasn’t the massive step, it was the change that happened in my mindset that day which made the difference. In a moment of reflection, I realized that if I could do this, I can do anything. If I can work this hard, I won’t just learn to walk again, I’ll learn to ski again. And I did!
Imagine if your mindset or if your team’s culture was all about hard work. What if everyone showed up every day and gave it their all. They arrived early, left late, and put in the extra reps? Brought extra intensity each day? What do you think that might do to your team’s output? What do you think that would do for your team’s success?
The good news is, it only takes one person to shift the culture of an entire group. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete or if you’re competing in the corporate world. The most successful people, the best leaders, they set the stage and lead by example, exemplifying the behavior they expect to see in their teams. And, whether or not you’re the established leader of your team, you can be a leader within your team. When you make this shift, a shift to intense work ethic, just imagine the benefits for you and your life on a personal level. Forget the team for a minute. What would it do for you if you choose to work hard, and I mean HARD, putting in the effort day-in-day-out?
Your output would be impressive, and if you bring that work ethic to your team, you will get noticed. There will be opportunities that arise for you that don’t for other people. You will achieve more than most and deserve the recognition that comes with it because it was on your shoulders. You take ownership of your effort, you choose your attitude, and you reap the benefits.
Start the shift. It doesn’t take much, but each day try to give it just a bit more than you did the day before.