A few years ago, a documentary movie called “March of the Penguins,” was released. If you haven’t see it, get a copy. It’s a beautifully photographed movie with some interesting metaphors for teams. For example, emperor penguins make a yearly 113 km trek across the ice of the Antarctic in order to mate in the exact place where they were born. Each mother lays a single egg during the coldest time of the Antarctic year, when temperatures can reach as low as -80 F / -62 C. First the mothers and then the fathers take turns incubating the eggs to keep them warm. They do this by resting the egg on top of their feet and covering it with the lower part of their belly.
The mothers pass off the eggs to the fathers a few days after they eggs are laid so that they can return the 113 km to the sea for food. (Both fathers and mothers have been without food for about two months at this point.) The fathers then have the responsibility of protecting the eggs during the 62- to 64-day incubation period while the mothers are away. They spend the entire two months standing with the eggs perched on their feet and under their bellies while 160-km-per-hour winds whip around them.
While the male emperor penguins can be fairly aggressive animals at other times, they lay their differences aside during the harsh Antarctic winter. Thousands upon thousands of fathers huddle closely together to protect themselves and their eggs from the cold and the wind. As the days pass, they take turns rotating to the warmest spots at the center of the huddle. With this unified strategy, the fathers are able to protect most of the eggs until they hatch just a day or two before the mothers return with food.
The partnership of the mother-father team is incredible, but what really impressed me was the fathers’ teamwork. Instinctively they know that trying to weather the winter storms individually will lead to disaster, so they combine their resources (in this case, their body heat) for the good of the colony.
Nothing seems to bring a team together more than a common goal or a common threat. The penguins’ common goal was survival of the colony. Their common threat was the difficult Antarctic winter. When a team is faced with a cause that they can rally behind, they set aside their personal differences and focus on the task at hand.
You can put this principle to work in your team by:
a) Identifying a goal that everyone on the team can get excited about. It has to be something that most or all the team members feel is worthwhile and possible (not to be read, “easy”…easy goals don’t motivate any more than impossible goals.)
b) Identifying a threat or enemy that everyone on the team can get enthusiastic about beating. Sometimes the threat you identify is a thing (like sin, poverty or even tasks that are pulling you away from your main priorities). Sometimes it is a negative consequence (like losing funding, having to put restrictions on a project or being unprepared for an event). And sometimes, it’s a person or group (like Satan and his armies). Whatever threat you identify, it has to be something that most or all of the team members feel is worth beating or preventing.
Teams that are focused on personal differences are not focusing on team goals. If your team is slipping into this trap, start looking for something everyone can get excited about.