How Winning Works: Building Great Work Teams

Here are lessons from a world-class adventure racer to help build your team

Posted Feb 15, 2013

John Paul (JP) Dulay is our guest blogger and book reviewer for this post.  JP is a graduate student in Positive Developmental Psychology at Claremont Graduate University.

Robyn Benincasa is a world-class adventure racer, who uses her experiences to provide advice on how to create stronger working relationships. Her book, How Winning Works (Ontario: Harlequin, 2012) is a terrific guide for relationship building. Leadership may be the salient theme, but her insights are relevant to both professional and personal relationships. The title suggests that her aim is to describe the mechanisms behind defeating opponents in a field of competition, but she actually focuses on what individuals can do to help facilitate an extremely powerful form of teamwork called human synergy. In adventure racing her teams have to hike through dense jungles, run across scorching deserts, scale treacherous mountains, and bike across endless plains. She draws leadership lessons from her successes and failures during these grueling contests that would inevitably stretch the physical, spiritual, and psychological limits of each individual team member and the team as a whole.

In the introduction Benincasa describes the extreme nature of adventure racing by recounting an experience at the top of the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador where human synergy helped her and her team overcome a challenging situation. With dangerously low blood-oxygen levels, she was unsure if she could finish the ascent, but her teammates showed confidence in her and she became reenergized: "Their faith transformed me. One minute I was on my knees in the snow with my head down, crying into my hands, and the next minute I was looking toward the top of the mountain nodding yes, yes, yes." The chapters describe the eight specific leadership lessons that can inspire human synergy on a team, or in any other context of human relationships. For example, in chapter 2 she describes how empathy and awareness can help us connect to others on a deeper, personal level, and in chapter 7 she discusses the importance of relinquishing one's ego and elevating others instead of one's self by giving credit for success to others. Other lessons include the importance of commitment, adversity management, mutual respect, ownership, and kinetic leadership.

Her discussion of "We Thinking" in chapter 5 was especially interesting because she challenges the reader to apply this thinking beyond the team context and take it out into our daily lives. This particular lesson is focused on sharing others' concerns and issues, that "your problem is our problem." By suffering equally, where no one person was allowed to struggle more than others, she found that her teams functioned optimally. Instead of competing, comparing, and criticizing others in business or any other domain, we-thinking will improve the chances of creating win-win situations where success can be maximized.

In general, she proposes that effective leaders inspire others to persevere and thrive under the most extreme and difficult conditions, accomplished as a team fueled by human synergy. Throughout each chapter, she shares adventure-racing stories (along with her experiences as a full-time firefighter and pharmaceutical salesperson) as evidence to support her proposition. Each race seemed to be a unique opportunity for her to learn. Apparently, every terrain was a classroom where she learned how to work together with other elite athletes to stretch their abilities to their limits.

Benincasa also ends each chapter by adding an extra dimension to the lessons she had learned. First, she describes business case studies from companies and organizations that experienced success through the lesson of that chapter. For example, at the end of chapter 3, Adversity Management, she reminds the reader of Johnson and Johnson's successful recovery in the 1980s after their Tylenol product had been pulled off the shelves when consumers died from ingesting cyanide-contaminated Tylenol. By accepting responsibility and working closely with concerned organizations, and competitors, the company was able to recover and continue to grow. These case studies are important because they demonstrate the application of the leadership lesson beyond the race course and into the organizational domain. They bring the lesson to life.

Second, after the business case study, she offers brief training exercises and tools to help the reader begin developing these leadership attitudes and behaviors. According to the sleeve notes these are some of the same tools that she presents when she gives leadership seminars. This allows the reader to actually engage in building these leadership qualities. These activities help add value to the book, complementing the theories grounded in her personal experiences and stories. The reader can actually participate and experience the leadership lessons for themselves.

Benincasa's book can be useful for those who are interested in trying to build strong, meaningful, and productive bonds between other people. She may want to consider providing a clearer conceptualization of what she means by "winning," or at least explain that winning might mean different things in different domains. This clarification may help the reader see clear connection between creating synergy and the tangible outcomes of that synergy. A brief discussion of what she means by "inspire" may help build her story as well. To inspire someone implies that volition came from within a person instead from an external source. This contrast similar to the contrast between intrinsic (internal) versus extrinsic (external) motivation. Inspiring a person, if it came from within a person, they may be more likely to take ownership of their behaviors and attitudes no matter the domain. From volleyball teams to surgical teams, from friends going on a camping trip to romantic partners considering cohabitation, the reader can use these leadership lessons to inspire human synergy. The author has been to the edge of survival in the name of success and victory. She has returned with these lessons for effective team leadership. The reader can take the lessons that she has learned and use them to inspire human synergy that builds powerful and effective relationships.