The #1 Principle of Team Leadership I Learned from Screen Printed T-Shirts

The more I read and learn about leadership the more I realize we are all leaders and we learn the most complex leadership theories anecdotally and even subconsciously. Then there are those of us, like myself, who pay thousands of dollars to learn how to categorize what we all know from experience in hopes to help in difficult leadership situations.

One of these subconscious, experiential lessons hit me a couple of days ago. I had just finished reading one of the best management and team leadership books on the market, Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis, and many of his conclusions are things I had already known and experienced, only he was able to find a trend among many teams and articulate these lessons more clearly than I could in my head. Bennis points out that “Great Groups” have a distinct culture and need to express this culture in some way.

I attended a small college in Iowa for my undergraduate degree, and this undergrad experience in Iowa taught me the most important team leadership principle that Bennis wrote about: a team creates it’s own culture and the subsequent artifacts. In Iowa (and probably other places, but especially NW Iowa) these artifacts are screen printed Hanes T-shirts.

A team creates it’s own culture and the subsequent artifacts, like screen printed t-shirts.

Every group on campus had a t-shirt; in fact I’m not really sure who didn’t have a group t-shirt. I still have hideously designed t-shirts that I’m so connected to that I can’t give away–and it’s been 5 years since I’ve walked across the graduation platform! The form, the artifact, t-shirts in this case, isn’t important; it’s the function the t-shirts represent that’s important. These t-shirts functioned to show to all nonmembers which “Great Group” I am. The t-shirt declared how I impact campus. Whenever I now don the coveted “Coly” beanie, I am instantly reminded of the Great Group of RA’s in my residence hall Colenbrander in 2008–2009.

We didn’t first have the hats and then create the tight-knit culture. We had to prank the campus together. We had to compet with–and against–each other. We had to pray with each other. We had to cry together. We had to lead other men in our dorm together. We had to create our own nicknames, roles, jokes, and vocabulary. Then could the “Coly” beanie become the symbol that united us outside of our dorm; and now unites us thousands of miles apart.

Artifacts, like Hanes t-shirts, are the mark of a Great Group and those artifacts serve to celebrate the distinct culture that no one else will ever understand, but will never be able to remember not existing. I may be out of touch with society, but I’m alarmed at the lack of team culture that should create these artifacts. From my perspective, we all try to go solo in our groups and miss out on all the benefits of creating a Great Group, like screen printed t-shirts.

What are the artifacts of your Great Groups?