In my former life, I worked in a marketing agency as Director of Content Marketing. The business world is awash with sport metaphors, and our agency was not immune to this. Our marketing team had a playbook, for instance. We praise team players. When we want to train someone on how to improve, we engage in coaching.
The mechanisms that make an athletic team function also apply to organizations, churches, businesses, and schools. If people congregate to work toward a common goal, they need to employ basic principles to succeed, or else the culture stagnates and rots, people lose heart, business suffers, and people leave. It doesn’t matter how many brilliant minds or talented athletes you have on your roster, if you don’t have SOUL, your team will never leap from good to great.
What is SOUL? It’s Tony Dungy’s framework for success, and he tells all about it in his book The Soul of a Team: A Modern-Day Fable for Winning Teamwork.
The SOUL of a Team
Let’s be open and real for a second: I’m no athlete. To me, football is a fun background activity to serve as conversation filler while we eat appetizers with friends. I understand the game well enough to know when something good is happening and when something bad is happening. I think I’ve absorbed the rules and requirements of the game through osmosis, as my husband is an avid sporty sportsman, in love with all of the sportsing. I am a C+ fan—happy to be there, but not going out of my way to know more than what’s happening in the moment.
Despite my slightly-above-average status as a sports fan, Tony Dungy’s journey alongside a fictional NFL team held my attention from start to finish.
In the fable, Dungy is hired as a consultant to help diagnose the culture challenges the Orlando Vipers faced that kept them from succeeding year over year, despite a solid roster of talented athletes and coaches. The fable reads like reality, and, since I don’t follow the NFL, I found myself constantly wondering whether these people and this team actually existed. In case you are just as sports-ignorant as I am, I Googled it. It doesn’t exist.
But what does exist is Dungy’s tried-and-true approach to teamwork, an acronym called SOUL. According to Dungy, in order to succeed in any industry, all teams need to find their SOUL. SOUL stands for selflessness, ownership, unity, and larger purpose. Simon Sinek calls finding your larger purpose “knowing your why.” The fictional Orlando Vipers have a lot of work to do to find their SOUL, and the journey provides an excellent example of what happens when teams come together to live out their SOUL.
Christ-Centered Servant Leadership
If you know anything at all about Tony Dungy, it won’t come as a surprise that all four of these principles find their roots in Christianity. Servant leadership is modeled over and over again by Jesus in the Bible. In John 13 (MSG), Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life.”
Jesus calls his disciples to be selfless. Paul tells the church community at Philippi, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand” (Philippians 2:1-4 MSG).
We can find the roots of ownership and unity summarized beautifully in Paul’s letters to Corinth about spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12 MSG). We are all part of the body of Christ, each with our own gifting and contributions. Knowing our role and owning our role leads to the flourishing of the body, which must be united to function properly. If there’s pain in one part of your body, the whole body suffers, from a splinter in your thumb to a thrown out back to a broken leg. But when the body is all healthy and each part is doing what it’s supposed to do, your whole person thrives. It’s the same for organizations, churches, teams, and businesses. On the same night as the foot washing, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17:6-12 MSG).
So much of Christ’s mission was to reorient the followers of God away from the simple, ritualistic obeying of rules to the larger purpose of love. Jesus boiled down all of the laws and all of the messages from the prophets into two commandments, love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-40 MSG). It’s up to each of us to discern what that means for us, for our team, whether that team is our family, our church, our business, or our athletic organization.
You can see Dungy’s SOUL framework played out on the field in The Soul of a Team.