Culture Trumps Everything

Culture Trumps Everything
The Power of the Setting

By Dr. Cory Dobbs

Founder, The Academy for Sport Leadership

*This Following is An Excerpt from the workshop workbook: A Leader in Every Locker.

Authors Note: The workshop workbook for A Leader in Every Locker(excerpt below) provides a very disruptive approach to team building. The idea of a leader in every locker is borderline laughable according to most coaches. I know, I’ve been presenting this idea and approach to coaches for some time. Most find it difficult to conceive of, but that’s the point. It wouldn’t be disruptive if it fit with everyone’s thinking and practice. The notion of a leader in every locker sounds like chaos. It’s quite the opposite. It is an organized learning system that shapes a high-performing culture by shattering long-standing socially conditioned traditions of leadership.

Why do some team cultures inspire energy and commitment, instilling loyalty and persistence, while others create individualism, in-fighting, diminish participant effort and tarnish the value of teamwork? Do some coaches have access to a magical elixir for creating a high-impact context, while others haven’t a clue? I doubt it. So what’s going on?

The conventional view of student-athlete leadership is that of a strong preference for appointing or electing team captains. The Academy for Sport Leadership’s research on the selection of a team’s captains reveals that close to eighty-percent of all captains are viewed by their teammates as extraverts. So team leadership starts with extraversion, but it’s also linked closely to playing ability. Likewise, our research shows that well over eighty-percent of all team captains are starters. The very idea of a team captain being a starting player is somewhat of a sacred cow. Thanks to this mythos, we find that players near the end of the bench are least likely to provide substantial leadership. Also, according to the players, team captains are expected to motivate and inspire teammates, with their doing so mostly by acting as a model of what to do. In other words, the defining criteria for choosing a team captain has more to do with one’s disposition—internal characteristics that reside within the individual—than fit together with the external context and the needs of the situation.

The central premise of this workshop workbook is that many of the leadership practices of sports teams are in fact backfiring because of the errant assumptions about who can lead. The scheme of a leader in every locker explores the complex ideas about dispositional (personal) versus situational determinants of behavior.

It turns out that social forces subtly and profoundly influence attitudes and behaviors; more so than most people are willing to acknowledge. Social effects hold immense power to shape who we are, both at a moment in time as well as over time. This principle leads to the social phenomenon that where you are shapes who you are; which flies in the face of accepted thinking that dispositions are the drivers. What’s more, student‐athletes are highly sensitive to the social forces, both explicit and implicit, embedded within an event, a situation, a context, and the team’s culture. Yet, too often coaches underestimate the impact of situational aspects—the context, the culture, and the circumstances—that evoke and guide a player’s behavior. After all, it’s much easier to attribute an individual’s behavior to his or her personality than explore the complex social situational determinants of one’s attitude and consequently his or her actions.

Furthermore, when we encounter a social situation most of us seamlessly adjust who we are to accommodate the social setting, to fit into the context. That is, we adapt to the environment. Such transitions are, for the most part smooth and seldom explicitly reflected upon. Not long ago I was admitted to a hospital for a surgical procedure. From the moment I walked in the door to check in I unconsciously acted like a patient. I played the role of a patient when the nurse was prepping me, willingly taking orders from someone I only met minutes ago. This is why leaders of great organizations declare that culture trumps all. The constant dynamic interplay between players and coaches holds great sway over the performance capability of a team. Culture influences are many micro-actions, giving the setting potency to control our behavior in the moment.

Social psychologists tell us that too often we inflate the importance of such things as one’s personality traits and dispositions as a convenient way to explain the behavior of others. When we do this, we fail to recognize and account for the importance of situational factors (immediate and cultural). The point I want to make here is that understanding the context—situationism rather than dispositionalism—provides insights into the potent forces eliciting or constraining a player’s behavior. For instance, in my observational research I have found that the players on the practice field closest in proximity to the coach are more likely to “mimic” the coach than those off in the distance. For example, if a coach is encouraging her team with positive words those players nearest to the coach will offer similar encouragement too. And if the coach is reprimanding a player, those closest to the coach are more likely to express disapproval to the offending teammate than those furthest from the event. All this is done outside the consciousness of those involved, but triggered by the situation. As you can see, the subtle nuance of the situation serves as a compelling force for producing behavior.

Add to this the factor that many coaches I’ve studied limit the ways in which they “describe” reality. Too often they don’t account for the multiple ways in which a situation can be viewed. “We didn’t rebound well last night,” says the head coach reading the game stats sheet. Her assistants all shake their head in agreement. However, maybe the other team shot really well making rebounds a casualty on the stats sheet. Certainly this is a simple situation, but coach’s, like historians, have the power of defining reality. Moreover, coaches often discount how their interpretations are shaped by an already constructed mental schema of a player, usually focused on the traits or disposition of the athlete. “He’s too passive, that’s why he won’t challenge his teammates,” comments the coach, attributing the player’s behavior to his personality rather than the broader context in which the behavior takes place.

Simple truths are often the hardest to come to. The simple truth here concerns the power and subtlety of situational influences on behavior. In the case of the team sport environment in which players perform and take action, the culture impacts the hearts, minds, and behavior—for good or bad. And when it comes to leadership, if you develop a leader in every locker you change the culture. Today, the more forward thinking coaches are adopting the approach of a leader in every locker.

To find out more about and order Sport Leadership Books authored by Dr. Dobbs including Coaching for Leadership, click this link: The Academy for Sport Leadership Books
About the Author

A former basketball coach, Cory’s coaching background includes experience at the NCAA DII, NJCAA, and high school levels of competition. While coaching, he researched and developed the transformative Becoming a Team Leader program for student-athletes. Cory has worked with professional athletes, collegiate athletic programs and high schools teaching leadership as a part of the sports experience and education process. Cory cut his teeth as a corporate leader with Fortune 500 member, The Dial Corp. As a consultant and trainer Dr. Dobbs has worked with such organizations as American Express, Honeywell, and Avnet.

Cory has taught a variety of courses on leadership and change for the following universities:

Northern Arizona University (Graduate Schools of Business and Education)

Ohio University (Graduate School of Education / Management and Leadership in Sport)

Grand Canyon University (Sports Marketing and Sports Management in the Colangelo School of Sports Business)

Visit to read Cory’s leadership blog.

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