The Tough Mudder Brotherhood

How to Turn Strangers into High Performing Teams in 15 Minutes

I have read a lot of books on teamwork.  In my career I’ve attended many team building events and “high performing teams” training.  I’ve interviewed dozens of potential hires and asked them questions targeting their ability to work and perform in teams.  Everybody knows that teamwork is critical to success in business.  Everybody also knows that there is a LOT of room for improvement.  Being a manager would be easy if it weren’t for the people, right?

Building a great team takes time.  High performing teams are rare.  You’ll never have a world-class team until you fire the bad apples.  Right?

I think that may all be wrong.  Any skepticism I had about the ability of total strangers to become a high performing team, literally in minutes, completely changed last weekend.

I participated in my first Tough Mudder 5K.  If you aren’t familiar with Tough Mudder, it goes something like this: you and a bunch of your friends voluntarily spend your own hard earned money to run a long distance, whose muddy path is rudely interrupted by some horrific obstacles, many of which involve incredible amounts of mud.  More or less.

The obstacles are designed to require teamwork to get across.  This could be because certain members of your team don’t have the strength to do it alone, or in some cases because the obstacle cannot be passed without a team to help no matter how bulging your biceps may be.

I was part of a team of ten.  I knew most of them well, one I had never met.  Before the start of the course, there is a really profound moment where the organizers of the Tough Mudder pull a big group of participants together (probably 200 or more of us at any given start time).  As one hyped up group, ready to tackle the 5K, 5 Mile, or 10 Mile course ahead (depending on your personal appetite for suffering), we were given the speech.

You know the speech.  The one that is famous from all the movies.  The one where the head coach tells all the players that you are going to have to dig deep and work together to win this thing.  The man who gave the speech was truly inspiring us with simple statements of truth.  I will never forget the moment.

He told us that from this moment forward, every single person on this course is your teammate.  If you see somebody who needs help, help them.

He told us that our only job was to do the absolute best we personally can.  He reminded us that if an obstacle was too much for us this time, to go around and take this experience to be stronger for next year.

He told us that men and women of the armed forces who are missing limbs from battle have completed this course, and so can anybody here today if they put their mind and energy into overcoming whatever is in our way.

He told us to be thankful for the men and women who serve to make it possible for us to be out on a hot day in Chicago running a Tough Mudder.  He reminded us that there is more to life than ourselves.

Then we warmed up together.  This is really interesting to me because everybody has already been stretching and warming up the past 30 minutes in anticipation of starting.  But I think there is a big of magic here.  As one group, rubbing sweaty shoulders with total strangers, we started doing high knees and jumps and other active warm-up moves in a “follow-the-leader” format.  Naturally with awesome music playing to pump us up.

This interests me because in some way, all of us doing this together as one group secured the bond that we were in it together.  We showed up as total strangers who had each prepared and trained for this event in our own way.  But right before we started the challenge, we warmed up in unison.  I may be reading into this too much, but I think there is something to this that leaders can remember.  No matter how simple the action, getting the whole team to move and act as one builds the bond.

Start time.  The whistle blew and we ran.  I’m not going to explain each obstacle or try to convince you to do a Tough Mudder (but you totally should).  But I was completely blown away by the experience because of one thing.  Everything that guy said before we started, everything about being a team with each person on the entire course, was true.

People from all over the country, maybe world, who I had never met or seen and will never see again, offered a helping hand at every obstacle.  The members of my own team were helping others.  It was camaraderie that has only been rivaled in a few experiences of my life.  But here is the part that blows my mind: it was INSTANT.

I’m talking extreme shift in teamwork.  Ten minutes ago, before we started the event, I would probably have hesitated to loan my cell phone to some of these crazy looking people.  Now I’m helping their mud-covered bodies over a wall so that they can turn around and help the rest of their team.  High fives and muddy hugs are happening everywhere.  We are nasty, smelly, caked with mud people acting like we have known each other for years.

And for what?  A t-shirt and headband?  Seriously?  Of course you know that’s not the real reason.  There is no prize, there is no big cash reward.  It’s internal.  It’s how it feels to finish.  It’s how it feels to struggle through the whole time, as part of one big muddy team.

So I’m thinking again about teams.  If Tough Mudder can turn thousands of strangers into muddy family in minutes, then we are missing something in business.  We are missing something in church.  We are missing something in our community.

I’ll let you figure out the lessons, same as I’m trying to.  I’ve got some ideas, but by no means have I figured out how to recreate that experience in another setting.  It’s not obvious.  But I’m sure of this: people are craving something meaningful to be a part of. They want to feel alive and part of something bigger than themselves.

Even if it’s crawling through mud, just to get to the other side.

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