When virtuosos join together in the pursuit of a common goal, miraculous things can happen. Sometimes an exceptional leader can recast the ordinary into the extraordinary, as George Washington did at Valley Forge, but more often marvels occur when leaders have stellar talent to start with. That happened at the Winter Olympics in 1980.
The US victory over the long-dominant and heavily-favored Soviets quickly earned the title “The Miracle on Ice,” the event many consider the greatest sports moment of the past century and what Sports Illustrated called “the single most indelible moment in all of U.S. sports history.”
What made it miraculous? To begin with, the US team entered the games seeded seventh out of twelve teams that qualified for the games. Second, composed of collegiate and amateur athletes, the US team faced a formidable opponent in the well-developed, legendary Soviet players who had won the gold in the previous four Olympics.
Even though the US team faced overwhelming odds, it did not put less-than-stellar players on the ice. The romantic notion that a bunch of college scrubs felled the world’s greatest team through sheer nerve and determination is both misguided and inaccurate.
The team also had a determined coach in Herb Brooks, who had spent the 1970s as head coach at the University of Minnesota, leading that team to three NCAA titles.Brooks spent a year-and-a-half nurturing the Olympic team-holding numerous tryout camps before selecting a roster from several hundred prospects. The team then spent four months playing a grinding schedule of exhibition games across Europe and North America.
Brooks emphasized speed, conditioning, unusual tactics, and discipline, but not popularity. Known for his prickly personality and fanatical preparation, Brooks united the previous rival players-often against himself.
The Americans entered the games as the underdogs, but they formed a team of competitive canines. From the hundreds of hopefuls, Brooks selected the twenty players who would go on to represent the US in the miracle. Of the twenty players, thirteen eventually played in the NHL. Five of them went on to play over 500 NHL games, and three played over 1,000 NHL games.
Scrubs? Underdogs? Second best? No, the US team was nothing short of a team of virtuosos. Brooks, a talented coach and former player, united the team and produced a synergic effect that was nothing short of miraculous, but he started with impressive raw talent.
Business leaders do well when they learn lessons from sports greats. Athletic coaches never attempt to “save” players who can’t produce. They cut them. Theses coaches know they can’t win unless they put the best available players in the game. They patiently wade through hundreds of applicants to find the select few who can deliver miracles. Then, they steadfastly commit to developing the talent. It doesn’t happen every time-just every four years when the best in the world compete with other virtuosos of their ilk. Maybe we should make it happen more often in our businesses.