Oswald Letter

“Remember the Titans” offers memorable workplace lessons

by Dan Oswald

The other night I walked in the door to find my youngest son watching the movie Remember the Titans. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I consider the movie one of my favorites. Of course, I sat down and watched the last 30 minutes of the film with my son.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Remember the Titans, but every time I see it, I’m enthralled by the film and its message. The movie, about a football team at a recently desegregated Virginia high school in the early 1970s, delivers a powerful message about people and life. If you’ve never seen the movie, I encourage you to watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

So last week, in just 30 minutes, I was reminded of a number of lessons the movie contains that we can apply at work.

The details matter. In the movie, the disciplined head coach, played by Denzel Washington, drills his players on executing the basics of the game flawlessly. The players practice the fundamentals relentlessly in an effort to obtain perfection. There are times when we all must focus on the big picture and consider our strategic alternatives, but the basics still matter. The ability to execute the little things does make a difference. Often it’s not glamorous to talk about the fundamentals necessary to succeed, but that doesn’t make them any less crucial. It’s the cumulative effect of all those little things that leads to the big achievements. Ignore them at your own peril.

It’s about the team, not the individuals. In the movie, the team doesn’t really begin to click and play well until the players accept one another and put the team above themselves. It’s the same in business. The contributions of any individual can be meaningful and impressive, but no one can singlehandedly carry a company. For the team and the business to succeed, it takes the contributions of every member of the team. All too often people want to take credit for the success and, even more so, avoid the blame for what has gone wrong. The latter leads to a defensive posture and finger-pointing. Neither helps the business move forward. Instead of looking for ways to avoid the blame, seek out things you could do better or differently to increase the team’s chances for success.

Success takes sacrifice. Toward the end of the movie, the Titans reach the state championship game. One of the players is really struggling to defend his man. He tells the coach to replace him with a better player because he doesn’t want to be responsible for the team losing. He sacrificed his starting position and his playing time in the championship game because he wanted to see the team succeed. Sometimes it takes that type of unselfish attitude to succeed in business. Handing an opportunity to a colleague or helping a coworker win a big account even though it might cost you a promotion or garner the coworker a big raise might be the right thing to do for the company. I believe people who make those types of sacrifices will ultimately reap what they sow. What goes around comes around.

Winning is fun. In the movie, as the team begins to gel, you see the players really start to have fun. And as they put together an undefeated season and the pressure to win builds, they continue to celebrate the wins. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it hard to stop and smell the roses. It seems like I move from one crisis to another. And when I do have success, I don’t stop to enjoy it. Instead I’m anticipating the next problem. Let’s face it—winning is fun. Sometimes you need to stop and enjoy the successes you and your team achieve. Celebrate the wins! You and your team are working hard to earn those victories. You need to help them relish those wins. And you need to do the same yourself.

I realize that I often write about sports, analyzing the lessons learned on the playing field and how they apply to the workplace. But if you give Remember the Titans a couple of hours, I think you, too, will see that there is much you can take from the movie and use in your role at work. There are certain universal lessons in life that can be applied just about anywhere. Remember the Titans contains quite a few.