An article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about a high-school cross-country coach in suburban Syracuse was fascinating. His teams have won nine national titles in nine years without superstar runners. His success isn’t due to harder workouts, but to his philosophy of training, his inspirational leadership, and the values he espouses. Rather than focus his attention on the best runners, he emphasizes the importance of the team, and each member’s responsibility to fully devote themselves to be their best for the team.
In essence, Coach Bill Aris taps into both internal motivation and group connection, and he leads not by control, but by challenging and inspiring. Companies who want to develop greater “engagement” can learn a lot from examples such as this. It is an exceptionally good example of what Daniel Pink writes about in Drive, and what is proven over and over again in many organizations I see; that engagement comes from internal motivation, not from power, control, or external incentives. In short, if you want people to move and act, power, control and incentives can work well, but they will never engender real engagement, the kind that creates winning teams. That requires a different approach to leadership, values, and techniques.