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No jerks allowed

FEB 22, 2021

I have just witnessed the Alpine Ski World Championship in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, where the Norwegian team took gold and bronze medals in slalom, with the 29-year-old Sebastian Foss Solevåg as the winner. Foss Solevåg has been on the national team for a decade now, and hasn’t really been stable enough to be on the podium before. This season has been very different.

From the studio in Oslo, his teammates who happened to be out with injuries, immediately commented on the fact that the #Attackingvikings have a team spirit and a culture that has been developed over 30 years and that make the Norwegian alpine ski team one of the best in the world. The winner himself, in an emotional interview, immediately offered his heartfelt thanks to everyone who had supported him in his long career with ups and downs.

Obviously, skiing down the course with a 210 m vertical drop and more than 60 poles is very much a thing you have to do yourself, but to get there and to be ready to perform is still a team effort.

In an article in The Guardian, written in 2018, the journalist tries to understand why the Norwegians are so successful in sports. One of the quotes in the article comes from the alpine skier Kjetil Jansrud: “We believe there is no good explanation for why you have to be a jerk to be a good athlete. We just won’t have that kind of thing on our team” (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/feb/22/norway-winter-olympics-success).

I believe in this approach. I also believe in what seems to be another important characteristic in high performing teams, namely to discuss the facts as they are, honest to the very core. This might be uncomfortable and painful, but a necessity to make change happen. If we cannot see the reality as it is, how can we make the right decisions and choose the right path ahead?

You can define leadership as making people do what they otherwise wouldn’t do by themselves. In order to have an impact, I believe in speaking the truth and painting a picture which is as accurate as it can be.

Too often companies think that they are better than they are, and that competitors are useless. I have been in executive teams where speaking negatively about industry colleagues is a “well-developed practice”. I don’t like it. I tend to think that most competitors are doing a pretty good job, and that we can find inspiration in developing our own capabilities by comparing ourselves to others. But to do so our mindset needs to be externally orientated, we need to be curious and open for other thoughts. Being defensive is not the answer. Seeing yourself through the lenses of others isn’t always easy, but it is frequently quite telling.

This open and honest discussion is very hard to achieve in a team dominated by jerks, as people will constantly be on the defensive, watching their backs, waiting for someone to attack.

In that sense, winning the gold medal is clear evidence of hard work, persistence, discipline and stamina. Hence, when Sebastian Foss Solevåg won his gold medal, I wasn’t the only Norwegian with tears in my eyes. It was simply so well deserved and I guess we all like to see a very good guy be the champ. Sebastian’s younger team mates were in tears too. They were both thankful for how “Sebbe” had embraced them as the newcomers to the team. At the same time, they were keen to show that they could beat him. There were no jerks around, simply a very high degree of support, open and honest discussions, collaboration and a desire to win as a team. I guess this is something we all want. Let’s make it happen.

Image source: Rakov Potok, Hrvatska