John C. Maxwell: 4 Steps to Lead Your Team to Win Big

UPDATED: January 18, 2017
PUBLISHED: January 18, 2017

They were a young team facing seasoned professionals. The veterans had secured gold medals six out of the seven previous Winter Olympic Games and were the clear favorites. Some of the players were active military, and all had been trained in top-notch facilities. The amateurs were fresh-faced college kids.

It remains one of the greatest sports stories ever told. At the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, the U.S. men’s hockey team stunned the Soviet Union, handing a defeat and ultimately taking home the gold medal. In the final seconds of the game, sports commentator Al Michaels famously exclaimed: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The upset went down in sports history as “The Miracle on Ice.”

The U.S. hockey team wasn’t expected to win, but its coach, Herb Brooks, brought out each player’s individual strengths to develop a winning team. Drawing from the ranks of U.S. college players, Brooks tapped into the intense, ongoing rivalry between East Coast and Midwestern schools. He recruited and coached players from both regions with one goal in mind: an Olympic gold medal. He pushed the athletes harder than they had ever been pushed. Bitter rivals in college, they became a band of brothers on the world stage. At the Olympics, they did more than exceed expectations. They obliterated them.

I love this story because I believe the greatest joy for leaders comes not from winning as individuals, but from leading a team to victory. And no team victory is sweeter than the one that surprises not only the critics, but also the members themselves.

Related: Tom Izzo on Inspiring Your Team

Here are four things you can do to develop a team that is so aligned, equipped and empowered that they accomplish more than they ever thought they could:

1. Gather the right players.

A strong team isn’t possible with weak members. This applies as much in business as in hockey. In Brooks’ case, he was looking for skills related to the game. What skills and characteristics should your team members possess?


The thrill of leading others to achieve something significant was far more powerful than the feeling of any individual victory.


The best team members share the leader’s values. All are striving toward the same goal because they define a victory the same way you do. After values, I look for a positive attitude, because that’s harder to teach than skills. Positive and unselfish players not only achieve more, they also spread their attitude to their peers and raise everyone’s game. Finally, I examine potential team members’ track records to determine whether they can be depended upon to get the job done.

2. Put them in a position to win.

After finding strong team members, wise leaders should also carefully choose what role each person plays. In the case of the Miracle on Ice team, each member was chosen as the best player for his specific position. So everyone was in a place where he could best contribute to a win. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to determine each person’s sweet spot, and as much as possible, allow the individual to contribute from that position.

Related: The Road Map to Great Teamwork

3. Communicate and recommunicate the vision.

If great team members are the ingredients for victory, communication is the recipe. Once you’ve gathered your team, you can win only if every member knows the plan and has the tools to execute it.

First the leader has to cast the vision and define what a victory looks like. In Brooks’ case, it was fairly simple: The goal was to beat the Soviets. But I’m sure Brooks reminded his players of that more than once. Why? For one thing, he had to overcome competing agendas. Players from rival colleges weren’t used to working together. He stressed the importance of unity, because anything less than a cohesive, single-minded team would fail. On any team, you will find competing agendas. Keep the main goal front and center to encourage members to set aside their personal agendas and push forward together.

4. Equip them to bring out their best.

Great leaders also equip their teams with the tools and training necessary to succeed. Brooks knew that to beat the Soviets, his team needed more than practice drills. The Soviet players were in extraordinary physical condition, often exhausting their opponents to secure a win. So Brooks’ training involved intense physical conditioning mixed with skills training. He developed their endurance to play the long game. Only then did they have a chance to use their skills to win.

Plan ahead for the challenges your team will likely encounter. Clear the path to victory by providing the tools and training necessary to get the job done. And be prepared to communicate the goal over and over as a motivator to persist throughout the process.

Related: John C. Maxwell: How to Live Out Your Mission Statement


This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.