by Sharon Flemings

After spending several days at the US Naval Academy, and witnessing first-hand the esprit de corps and teamwork exhibited by the incoming Class, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the topic of teamwork and how it relates to the past discussions on our processes.

Create a base, and build
For those of you who don't know what the Herndon climb is all about, let me explain in a little more detail. On the Naval Academy grounds, stands a 21' tall monument to Commander William Lewis Herndon. This monument represents the "qualities of discipline, teamwork and courageď that are important to all future naval officers. As their last official act as Plebes, the freshman class uses their learned lessons about teamwork to create a human scaffolding reaching up the sides of the monument, to replace the "Dixie cup" cover (that worn by plebes) on top with that of an upperclassman. Of course, just to make things a little more challenging, the monument is covered with 200 pounds of lard.

At the sound of the cannon, 1,000 Plebes run headlong toward the monument with high expectations that they will quickly get to the top of the monument; however, after a short time they learn that they cannot conquer this challenge without working together. Over time, they discover that they need to build a strong base, then gradually build on that base in order for one of their classmates to reach the top and replace the hat.

Consider, for a moment, the challenges we face in business today - we're confronted in all directions with challenges of our own: economic, technological, competitive. We need to build a strong base with our colleagues in many areas of the organization in order to allow us the flexibility and adaptability necessary to respond to challenges and change.

Take turns leading
I also had the opportunity to observe Sea Trials at the Academy. During this grueling 15-hour day, the freshman class executed a number of exercises designed to test their endurance, tenacity, determination and skills. These exercises are modeled after the Marine Corps' "Crucible" and the Navy's "Battle Stations" programs, and is the ultimate test of teamwork.

Obviously, in order to endure the hardships of this most challenging event, one person cannot be expected to lead the squad for the entire day. Instead, the Plebes learned early on that they needed to take turns leading and motivating the group in order to get the entire team through each of the five rotations. At time, individuals could hang back and rest or follow - relying on others to keep up the energy level. Don't misunderstand - all midshipmen completed all the activities, but they relied on each other to rotate the leadership. They learned that they needed to rely on each others' strengths, and different leadership styles in different situations. Some events required all out energy and stamina, while others required thoughtful reflection and analysis. Each member of the team brought their own skills to the challenges at hand, and "stepped up" as appropriate.

How often do we do that in our business environments? Each person in a team has individual strengths to offer, and we all know that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts. But, just how effective are we at 1) identifying the specific strengths we need for a particular challenge, and 2) allowing (or rather, expecting) the individuals with those skills to step forward and take a leadership role? Too often, we look to the designated leader to lead, while we allow everyone else to just follow. 

Take Action
Try this out on a team in which you are currently a member:

          Evaluate which leadership traits are most important for what your team needs to accomplish

          Identify those individuals with the skills and traits needed

          Create opportunities to lead, leveraging those skills and encourage others to take responsibility for leading

I would be interested in hearing about your results. 

P.S. I am pleased to report that the Class of '09 now holds the record for quickest Herndon climb under the rather slippery and messy conditions dictated by recent traditions. If you're interested in learning more these events, please see the background Herndon information (, and photos from this year's Herndon climb (

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