Culture is Key

In order to be a Top Flight Team, the team’s players must be motivated. Science tells us that to be motivated an individual must first have purpose, a reason why, a cultural imperative.

Before we delve into the science, let us look at the worlds of sports and business to where purpose and culture has provided the backbone for high performance.

Bill Walsh was a legend. When he took over coaching the San Francisco 49ers they were an under-performing bunch of also-rans in the American NFL. From 1979 to 1989, he turned them into one of the greatest sporting dynasties in the history of the sport. His belief was that to build a successful team that team had to have character. He has been quoted as saying ‘You get nowhere without character. Character is essential to individuals, and their cumulative character is the backbone of your winning team’. His ethos was that in order to build character, you had to have the right culture in place. His philosophy was that he was a teacher first and a leader second. He taught his players to be characterful. As the title of this book proclaims, The Score Takes Care of Itself. Rather than focusing on results, it was more important to work on the team and make sure it had the right culture to build character and succeed.

Vince Lombardi, another legendary American Football coach, said that ‘The challenge of every team is to build a feeling of oneness, of dependence on one another. Because the question is usually not how well each person performs, but how well they work together.’ Again, the ‘feeling of oneness’ is a shared cultural imperative.

More recently, culture has formed the central theme of another team with roughly the same shaped ball as the world of Walsh and Lombardi, but a completely different set of rules. Rugby Union’s All Blacks are the National Team of New Zealand and they have been the most successful team in history, winning more games back to back than any other nation and being the first to win successive World Cups in 2011 and 2015.

Unusually for a sports team, it isn’t just supreme skill, star players and genius coaches, that make the All Blacks so successful, it is the overall culture of the team that is the bedrock of its success. What it meant to be an All Black and to be a New Zealander is baked into the heart of the team.

Following a period of abject underperformance during the 2004 Tri-Nations tournament, when the All Blacks finished last behind Australia and South Africa, the new coach Graham Henry and his team reviewed the situation and realised that they needed to ‘create an environment that would stimulate the players and make them want to take part in it’. They came up with six words – Better People Make Better All Blacks.

Once they had struck upon this purpose, they had the reason to create a cultural imperative around it. In addition to this, they allowed the players to take ownership of creating that culture. As Wayne Smith, a member of the All Black coaching team, says ‘We had to put forward stuff that inspired us and that inspired the players’. Adding, ‘If you are going to set goals the players have got to set goals. If you are going to be vision-driven and values-based, they have got to be a huge part of that’.

Management Consultant Owen Eastwood states that ‘The emotional glue of any culture – religion, nation or team – is its sense of identity and purpose’. What drives the formation of culture with the All Blacks is the connection of personal meaning to public purpose. This is the way in which we connect ourselves to a wider purpose. If our sense of personal meaning aligns with the values of an organisation, that sense will impel us to work hard and achieve success.

In order to embed this as their cultural bedrock, the All Blacks have an ongoing interrogative process as a central theme, they question eveything. This, known at the Socratic Method, is employed as a method of hypothesis elimination and helps them find self-knowledge. The coaches employed this method, rather than instruction so that their charges could make their own judgement of situations, set internal benchmarks and form their own culture.

As I have found in my own coaching, this form of leadership creates adaptive problem-solving with individuals taking ownership of their situation and continuous improvement as a result. Having the humility to tell athletes or mentees that you don’t have all the answers, questioning the status quo through ongoing interrogation helps individuals connect to a value-driven and purpose driven culture and leads to vast improvement.

In 1962, when President John F Kennedy gave his enthusiastic speech about sending a spaceship to land on the moon, leaders at NASA had profound misgivings about the feat being possible. Only two years beforehand their first attempt to send an unmanned test craft to orbit the Earth had been a damp squid, lifting only four inches before settling back down and jettisoning its escape rocket which instantly deployed its landing parachutes which then fell into the sea. This was all whilst the US was losing the Space Race against the Soviet Union, who had already achieved the first Earth orbit, first animal in orbit, the first images of the far side of the moon and would very soon put the first man into space.

NASA was originally conceived as a research institution, with independent teams of specialists working on their own projects. The problem in its lagging achievement was that whilst these independent specialists were very comfortable with working on their own projects, they were not good at integrating efforts into a single project. This was essential for a project such as landing on the moon, which would require a team of 300,000 individuals working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries.

In 1963 all this would change with the appointment of George Mueller to build the managerial foundation of the Apollo program, that of taking a man to the moon. Mueller’s vision was to create ‘joint cognition’ between all the teams within NASA and around the world working on the project. For this to be possible he needed cultural change. This change came in requiring all those involved to align behind one purpose, landing a man on the moon, and the communication structures needed in order to realise this.

Whereas before Mueller’s involvement NASA HQ would collect data from various field centres each month and have a few managers check for inconsistencies, he insisted on daily analysis and quick exchange of data. All data was continually on display in a Central Control Room and this received updates from teams and contractors on a constant basis. This has been likened to the Internet over 20 years before the Internet was created. The organisation also built a ‘teleservices network’ to connect teams and project control rooms together, providing the ability to hear in real time the problems and issues each was facing and how they would be solved.

By today’s standards of interconnected life, this seems trivial, but in the mid 1960s this was revolutionary and a huge cultural shift for an organisation that had previously been very silo orientated in its operation. To begin with this caused huge ructions with staff as they learned the new cultural imperative of the project. However, once they saw the utility of the information sharing, more and more of the initial opposition came around.

Another cultural change that NASA had to make at the time was that of dealing with outside contractors. Previously NASA had done everything in-house, however, this was a project so huge that NASA simply did’t have the capacity or expertise to do everything in-house. But the complex interaction of parts involved in this project meant that those provided by sub-contractors not privy to the full context were likely to create problems. The solution was to bring the contractors in-house and they needed to have a handle on the whole picture. That way they could continue to be specialists in their field but knew the wider implications of their output.

Of course, we know the story has a happy ending. The cultural oneness that was fostered in Mueller’s vision of ‘joint cognition’ proved to be the main reason for NASA’s success. So successful in fact that this is still used today and has been essential in projects such as the International Space Station and Boeing’s 777.

What science says

A study by behavioural scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 2000 gave us their Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which argues that humans have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, we are motivated. When these needs are denied us, our motivation and happiness plummet. Of the three pillars of SDT, autonomy is the strongest. Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice (purpose), whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self (1).

Recent studies have shown that autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burn-out and greater levels of psychological wellbeing (2). Researchers at Cornell University studied over 300 hundred businesses, half of which had a strong culture of autonomy for their employees and half of which had a culture of top-down direction. The businesses with an autonomous culture grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented businesses and had one third of the staff turnover (3).

Baby Boomers are now the largest demographic cohort in the majority of the Western World. During 2006 the earliest Boomers hit their 60th birthday, at this time in the United States alone one hundred Baby Boomers reached this landmark every thirteen minutes. As is human nature, with every landmark comes reflection. With this reflection, they soon realise that they still have upwards of 25 years left on this planet and start wondering when they will do something that really matters and make a difference in the world. During their twenties, thirties and forties the world was in an unprecedented economic boom. Yet their reflection tells them that they still have unmet dreams. They are still seeking purpose.

Sylvia Hewlett, an economist at Cambridge University, has researched purpose in different generations of human society. Her findings show that the Baby Boomer and Millenial generations now have the same view of purpose in their lives. She says that both these generations ‘are redefining success [and] are willing to accept a radically “remixed” set of rewards’. Far from rating monetary compensation from being the most important, they choose a range on non-monetary factors such as ‘a great team’ or ‘the ability to give back to society through work’ (4). In other words they crave purpose and cultural imperative more than financial rewards in their life.

What does this mean for me, you and our teams?

From various successful business projects, sporting exploits and scientific research, we can see that purpose and culture are necessary to get our teams to perform. In order to create this, we need to have a Socratic Method of asking ‘why’? Why are we doing things? Why do we want others to follow? Why do we need their help?

As Simon Sinek says, ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. He argues that what we feel matters more than what we think, because the area of the brain which handles feelings, the limbic, is buried deep within its pre-linguistic core. This means that, given a choice, we follow our gut. He says that asking ‘why’ creates a biological imperative, it drives us and inspires us.

Not only do we need to simply ask questions, but we need to form better questions to ask to draw better answers from those around us.

We also need to create an environment where our team can be autonomous in what they do and how they do it. By asking the questions and seeking why we build stronger bonds and attain higher achievements.

That way we can all align behind a purpose and build a culture of success.


  1. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, “Self Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-Being” American Psychologist 55 (Jan 2000)
  2. Ryana and Deci, “Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-Being Across Life’s Domains”, citing many other studies
  3. Paul Baard, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, “Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings” Journal of Applied Social Psychology
  4. Sylvia Hewlett, “The ‘Me’ Generation Gives Way to the ‘We’ Generation” Financial Times, June 19 2009

Also credits go to Drive by Daniel Pink, Legacy by James Kerr and Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.


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