Great teams often need an Affiliator

Great teams need a mix of personality styles – too many hard-driving “alpha” types can rock the boat off course.

That’s apparent from The Last Amateurs, by Mark de Rond, a fascinating account of Cambridge University’s winning boat in the Oxford-Cambridge Race of 2007.

The CxC Consutling Balanced Leadership Model highlights four broad personality styles: Activator, Affiliator, Analyser and Conceptualiser.

Most successful leaders tend to have two, and sometime as many as three of the styles on display. A rare few, who we refer to as “Fully Balanced,” have ready access to all four styles and are able to combine them and switch in and out of one or another as the situation requires.

In a nine-person team – especially one crammed together in an ultra-narrow boat, pulling along an often choppy Thames River at lung-busting speed for about 17 minutes – balance is essential, both literally and metaphorically. And that balance can be achieved even if no single member of the team displays it.

The two key leaders of the Cambridge boat in 2007 – Club President Tom James, and German World Champion Sebastian Schulte – staged a mini mutiny and effectively over-ruled the head coach in order to get a man in their boat who wasn’t the strongest contender, but the one with the greatest ability to harmonize the team. In CxC Balanced Leadership terminology, this type of individual would be called an Affiliator-Activator. At Cambridge in 2007 a Canadian named Dan O’Shaughnessy played that role.

As de Rond describes O’Shaughnessy: “His personality seems to make a surprisingly positive difference to their sense of ‘togetherness’… (O’Shaugnessy) was not outstanding technically, but was able somehow to make the crew gel … (He) is the one who seems to supply that key ingredient that cements them into a crew as opposed to a band of eight outrageously talented but conjointly dysfunctional individuals…

“…Dan (gives) the normally quiet bow a voice and helps the four bow-most oarsmen integrate with the more experienced and far more vocal stern four… Dan’s vocal efforts were felt to have gone a long way in allowing the crew to settle into a fast and sustainable rhythm. It was here that Dan’s contribution first came to the fore in helping move the boat faster, not by means of any individual coup on his part, but by drawing a better overall performance out of the rest of them. By helping the crew to lighten up and bond, to be able to find the silver lining around even the gloomiest cloud, Dan seemed uniquely capable of ensuring that the crew would work effectively as a unit…

“…What few people had realised until then was the investment Dan made in working his magic to gel the crew socially… There’s many a day when he feels least like being the optimist, the one to fire up the crew and make calls… Yet because he knows that it was for principally this reason the returning (leaders) fought to have him in the boat, he has no option to force a smile and play the crew comedian….

“…The current (Cambridge boat) is approaching an ideal eight in psychological terms. The guys are serious about racing and yet the mood remains a light touch. This is partly the result of Dan pulling out all the stops to make sure the stern four remain happy, ‘because when they’re happy they’re some of the best bloody rowers in the world,’ Dan says. You’ve got to be quietly confident and relaxed about the race when going into it. There’s absolutely no need for an overly serious attitude, and so Dan and (de Rond) tell jokes to try and keep the mood light. On race day we would be nervous as hell but also have that all-important sense of relaxation, being able to joke a little while taking the boat out.”

And how is such a congenial and inspiring personality forged? Through extreme adversity. As de Rond notes: “The sudden loss of his brother to suicide caused (O’Shaughnessy) to reflect on the consequences of depression, and probably to overcompensate by adopting a more-positive-than-usual outlook on life. It’s one that is greatly appreciated by his fellow oarsmen.”