What really is team unity? Lessons from a Protea.



I have read a lot of fascinating insights over the past two days, as the merits of the Quinton De Kock decision to not kneel have surfaced. What is clear is that the decision, and the subsequent social media reaction to it, has had the effect of polarising people. In fact social media seems to do just that - but this article is not about social media. Thank goodness, because I know bugger all about it!

The act of kneeling in solidarity with the noble principle of ending racism (a nigh impossible task it seems) has ended up causing plenty of division. Well certainly in the short term. However as a wise man once said to me - “You have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelette”. So is this unhappiness and division a necessary ill for the end goal of actual unity (not some false unity paraded through impressive optics). For this I don’t have the answer as I cannot see into the future. But I would suggest the issue here is now that we are not debating racism, empathy and equality, but rather whether forcing someone to do something against their will is ethical, or even legal. So perhaps breaking those eggs is only serving to make a mess rather than an omelette? Let’s see.

It did lead me to think though - what is unity? I recently saw a lot being spoken about the lack of unity in the Protea side - this was determined as a result of seeing a picture of half the team kneeling and half not, before a particular WC cricket match. This appears to me too simplistic a view on a very complex debate. Should they all kneel in solidarity? In my view that would be great, for many reasons, but I do not believe that one picture, or gesture, should be the benchmark for unity, and this particular article is not about the BLM movement per se.

If I were to go around to most teams in South Africa, I would hazard a guess that similar differences would exist around what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to kneeling for BLM, GBV, LGBTQI rights, farm murders, eradication of poverty and issues of the like. All major issues in this country, and all worthy of airtime. So does this mean that the team is not unified? What is unified? And more importantly, to what end is unity important?

It is known that a lot of high performing teams are not all ‘friends’, in fact at times, quite the opposite. So whilst we may want to be part of a team that is all mates, it does not necessarily mean that team will perform. But I digress. As a national sporting team, you are there to win, to inspire and to be role-models for your country - well that’s my opinion anyway. Hence having an international side that is not respected by its own country, winning or not, is not acceptable. However, their ‘unity’ (a subjective measure) is still something that I believe you cannot demand or even expect - just as you can’t in all teams in all spheres of life.

Unity in a team does not mean we all agree, or all fight exactly the same cause, or even that we are all friends. Unity should mean we agree to have tough conversations. In the words of Peter Hawkins the team coaching guru, ‘Can we trust each other enough to put our mistrust on the table?’. Unity should mean when someone makes a mistake, or is misguided, the team rallies around that person to help them. Unity means we work very hard to see each others’ points of view despite not always agreeing with them. Unity means we respect each other enough to challenge each other. Unity means we are working towards a common goal, despite whatever beliefs and personal aspirations we may have.

I’ll bet if I surveyed people after the 2019 WC rugby final and asked whether that team was unified, people would say yes. But three weeks prior there was the misguided outcry because of the fact that Makazole Mapimpi had been seen chased away from a reserves (bomb squad) photo of which the players were all white. So they went from unified, to ununified back to unified in a 7 weeks (optically that is). Had they been forced to take a knee by their bosses, I’d hazard a guess that the outcry would be far greater than the Quinton De Kock one however. The dangers of optics being the benchmark for unity.

Would it be great if the whole Protea team could be unified, win, have their best players on the field - absolutely yes. Would it be great if racism were eradicated, and that this national sports team of ours led the charge in doing so? Yes, an unequivocal yes! Should their mixed reaction to taking a knee be seen as disappointing? Also yes, although this will depend on many beliefs you hold. Should the fact that they don’t all take a knee pre-match be paraded as an un-unified team in contrast with those that would, as ‘unified’? I say No! Unity in teams reaches far deeper than this.

Here is hoping this unfortunate moment created perhaps by poor leadership all round, be a learning moment for many teams - the conversations and path to unity are not a destination, but rather a journey that never ends, but fills our lives with depth. So discuss in your team, what unity really is, and how it may be something that you all strive to achieve. Most teams of course don’t have the eyes of the world looking at it, but even if you do, be authentic internally in order to appear authentic externally.