- On June 7, 2016
Recently, I came upon a riveting documentary called RED ARMY, which follows the lives of Soviet hockey players who were recruited to play for the National Hockey League. Now, hockey is an acquired pastime for me. I used to think it was all about the fights…but once my kids started playing the game, I began spending my weekends obsessing over the sport, slowly learning to dissect its finer points. As I watched Red Army, I was amazed by the Soviet team’s training approach compared with the U.S. teams’ – and the remarkable results achieved when those differences were interwoven.
On one hand, it is the story of a celebrated Soviet team that rose to great heights in the ‘80s and the rigor with which it trained its young athletes from boyhood to pro-level mastery. While it was intriguing to watch the intensity of their training regimen unfold, I was most struck by the behavioral dynamics among the team members and what happened when some of the Soviet players joined American teams down the road. It made me curious about what conditions are needed to get the best out of a team that is thrown together. Noting the impact of culture in their interactions and what the entire team gained from the experience, I saw significant implications for our corporate boardrooms.
Coaching and Context
A key lesson was how important the coach and the context of the social dynamics of the team were to the success of the Russian players who had joined American teams. When Slava Fetisov (former captain and star defenseman of the Soviet Red Army team) first joined the NJ Devils, the Americans looked upon him and his style of play with perplexity. On the ice, the Russians passed the puck to each other with beautiful finesse, weaving in and out of other players. Their early training in ballet and other movements allowed them to skate in and out of the opponents’ zone multiple times before they scored a goal. Their movements and athleticism were very different from the way the Americans emphasized body checking and shooting.
The Russian “puck carrier was servant of the other players and served it to the others as needed.” Whereas, the Americans were seen as making fancy passes and showing “the most brutal individualistic play”. As a result, the American players often became confused with the approach of their Soviet teammates. It was clear that the approach and training in the two countries was very different.
Perhaps because Fetisov had such a different style, he ended up being traded to the Detroit Red Wings in 1995. Scotty Bowman, then the head coach of the Red Wings, knew how good the Soviet athletes were and recognized that their style of play had hidden untapped value. He knew it could provide a competitive advantage on the ice; the difficulty that it posed to their own team in integrating the Soviets’ style of play would equally give their opponents trouble defending against it. The Red Wings already had three other Soviet players when Fetisov joined (including a former national team teammate), so they teamed up and designed their ‘own plays’. Bowman empowered them to use their own style, making multiple passes in their own zone. He was nonjudgmental about their approach and recalls, “I just let them do what they wanted to do.” The Red Wings eventually brought home the Stanley Cup in 1997.
Lessons for Leaders
I don’t know if Bowman was thinking consciously about being culturally adaptive as he coached his team, but his coaching style exemplifies many traits of the ‘fluent leader’.
In our description of the fluent leader¹, a few qualities that come to mind are:
- Humility, openly acknowledging that the leader doesn’t know everything
- A willingness to let the team players who are different from the leader and the existing order try their own strategies and see them play out
- Creates a culture that allows team members to be different in communication style and style/approach from one another
Too often, many business leaders who want to build high-impact teams are stuck in a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. They suppress the creative juices of team members who are culturally or stylistically different from themselves. How many times have we overlooked or minimized a new team member’s idea because it is wildly different from what has been done before? Or failed to create an environment that allowed them to speak up?
Perhaps we might take a lesson or two from Scotty Bowman’s playbook. Winning teams embrace differences, not conformity.
Red Army, 2014, Sony Pictures Classics, Written, Directed and Produced by Gabe Polsky
¹ Fluent leader in Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, 2014 HarperBusiness, Hyun & Lee
Jane Hyun is a leadership strategist and coach to Fortune 500 companies. www.hyunassociates.com