Leadership & Culture, Performance | Sep 9, 2021
In the final instalment of our three-part series, former Australian SAS Team Commander Harry Moffitt tries to untangle a tricky topic.

Anthony ‘Harry’ Moffitt is a recently retired Australian Special Air Service Regiment [SAS] Team Commander. During a career that spanned almost 30 years he designed, planned, and carried out hundreds of combat missions and lead dozens of sensitive military programs.

Moffitt completed his time in the SAS as its Director of High-Performance. He now practises as a registered psychologist across sports and industry and recently authored his memoir Eleven Bats: A story of Combat, Cricket, and the SAS. It will be released in the UK on September 11.

In an exclusive series for the Leaders Performance Institute, Moffitt shares what his experiences and mistakes have taught him about leadership, the self, and, in this final instalment, team culture.

By Harry Moffitt

At the end of my privileged career, the memories that stand tall amongst all others are those from the best teams of which I have been a part. There is nothing like being part of a team where it truly is one for all and all for one. I don’t understand why we all don’t invest more in making teams like that because, win, lose, or draw, it is the team you remember.

To wrap up this series, I want to delve into the question of team culture and I humbly proffer six considerations, shaped during my SAS career, that I believe will resonate with high performance teams in sport and beyond.

1. Culture is a complex adaptive system

I have been interested in culture, from both the theoretical and applied perspectives, for nearly 20 years  and I am yet to read or meet anyone who really knows what it is or how it works. A little like leadership, it seems a concept analogous to the weather, and about as controllable in my mind, too.

What I do know is that culture is entirely a human construct and is made of humans; therefore, it is messy and impossibly difficult to define. And like a human, or group of humans, it is a complex adaptive system. I think that is why nearly all linear cultural interventions fail.

There are, however, a few things I have learned that guide my thinking. Firstly, it is dangerous to idealise culture. What are good cultural artefacts and practices in an SAS team are not in the context of a finance or art gallery team. Secondly, we all join a culture – it doesn’t join us. Thirdly, it takes time and practice to notice the composite artefacts of a culture. Once you can see them, you can dedicate effort towards dampening the bad and amplifying the good. One final point, if you have any arseholes in the team, get rid of them ASAP, they won’t change so plan to move them on.

Consider some of the principles of a complex adaptive system (taken from several resources) for a moment and see if anything sounds familiar?

  • They are self-organising.
  • Non-linear, dynamic, multi-dimensional, rich interactions between artefacts and agents.
  • Exchanges continue in feedback loops throughout the system with high inconsistency in quality and quanta and are therefore highly unpredictable.
  • The behaviour of the system is not predicated on the behaviour of any individual agent or existence of any individual artefact.
  • The boundaries of such systems are impossible to define as they made up of closed and open sub-systems and are connected to and influenced by other complex adaptive systems.
  • Complex adaptive systems operate under ‘far from equilibrium’ conditions.
  • These systems require a constant flow of energy (which take multiple forms) for its maintenance.
  • They have a past. That is, they have evolved, and that past is ‘co-responsible’ for their current condition.
  • Elements in the system may be ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole and respond only to the information or stimuli available to them locally.

2. Be deliberate, don’t just default

For most of us, we meander through life in a passive, receive mode. With few questions, we accept our values, beliefs, philosophical understanding, and knowledge from those around us. Our daily interactions are largely driven by externalities and others. Free will is only ‘free’ in as much as the rules and regulations of our surrounding environments and perceptions allow it to be. Zeno’s dog and cart analogy springs to mind:

When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined.

Zeno of Citium

We are largely in default mode, I would argue. But a characteristic of high performance is being deliberate in what and why you do things. Not only does your body and mind love routine and certainty, your team and organisation do too. It’s a no brainer, but so important it is worth mentioning again and again.

3. You don’t earn trust and respect – they have to be given

It was Saint Francis of Assisi that said: ‘It is in giving that we receive’ and I offer this mantra as helpful in understanding how to build trust and respect. Teams exist and perform in a psychosocial space akin to a biological cell. Continuing the analogy, in a cell the ‘cytoplasm’ protects and nourishes the component cell parts and facilitates information transfer between them. In the team context, the ‘psycho-plasm’ provides a similar function, but the critical nutrients in the psycho-plasm might include respect and trust. So, if you accept the analogy, you will agree that we might inject nutrients into the psycho-plasm. I strongly believe that it is in the giving of trust and respect that we grow and receive it back. Trust and respect all those in your team and in return you will receive it back. And if you want to know about your team culture, start by looking in the psycho-plasm.

4. Nurture a sense of humour

Always have a joke ready to lighten the mood! Even a terrible joke can rapidly increase deep breathing of oxygen-rich air, which stimulates our heart, lungs, and brain. Laughter increases the happy buffering neurotransmitters in the brain. It gives you that temporary lift in mood that we have all experienced; when you are in the grind of a tough activity and someone farts, for example. Everyone laughs, and immediately, the grind seems less taxing. Humour is also an effective means to bind teams (I don’t mean farting) and likely underpins the value of play and novelty. Personally, I believe we should be selecting for humour in high-performing teams.

5. The ‘tacit knowledge transfer problem’ matters

You might be a champion cyclist and expert at riding a bike. But that does not mean you are good at explaining or teaching how to ride, repair, or build a bike. This assertion highlights the ‘tacit knowledge transfer problem’, something I learned from Dr Preston Cline way too late in my career. Too often I have stood silently by while a so called ‘grey-beard’ has done more damage to a young aspiring mind, than good. It is a critical insight to consider in the context of teaching and learning. It is my sense that selecting who is influencing and growing your future minds is more important than selecting your future minds. A great question to kick off your next team reflection session.

6. Philosophy is the forth dimension of human performance

I love to apply George Engel’s biopsychosocial model to human performance, something we amplify for the team context. However, I have long felt compelled to add a philosophical sphere to the model. And I humbly suggest it is the most important domain of all. The metacognitive, indeed, the numinous, is a complex construct important to our perception of the environment around us, and how we behave as social beings.

In short, it is thinking about how we think, or being curious, sceptical even, about our mind’s activity. In the modern day it seems we tend to outsource this, and I am not talking about being easily distracted – humans have long been that. I mean: taking time to think deeply, share out philosophies. Try studying the stars, watching a fire, or pacing the garden. For me, paying attention to these things enhanced by life and made my interactions with those in the team deeper and more meaningful. As Percy Cerutty said, ‘Think deeply and separate what you wish from what you are prepared to do’ and, perhaps, what you are prepared to do for each other.

Harry Moffitt’s Eleven Bats: A Story of Combat, Cricket and the SAS is available from Allen & Unwin.

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