The “Final Five” took home the gold in the women’s team gymnastics competition Tuesday night. The name, a tribute to longtime national team supervisor Martha Karolyi, also works because this is the last Olympics to have five person teams. In 2020, teams will be made of four gymnasts. The squad, comprised of previous Olympic stars Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman and newcomers Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian, dominated the competition en route to a historic win for team USA. Their margin of victory over second place Russia and third place China hasn’t been seen since before the Kennedy administration.
The Olympics is a grand smorgasbord of sporting events, including both team and individual sports. While gymnastics and swimming have captured the world’s attention so far, track and field and beach volleyball are next in line. Along the way we’ll also see weightlifting, handball, golf, and kayaking.
I am fascinated by the teamwork required for all of the events, however. We traditionally see the individual sports as one-on-one matches, where athletes triumph on their own. This spirit was perfectly captured in the now-famous waiting room scene between Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos just a few nights ago. The reality, though, is that none of the athletes in the individual events would be where they were without having a team around them. Just go back and watch any of the three races Katinka Hosszu won and you’ll see her point and beam as her muscled husband (and coach) cheers her victory.
Whether an individual with an invisible troupe of supporters behind them, or a team like the “Final Five,” every Olympic athlete needs a community in order to be their best. You and I are no different. We are not competing for a gold medal, but our God-given mission of bringing glory to God with every aspect of our lives necessitates that we have a strong community around us. Let’s briefly look at how we can build better community through teamwork.
Dr. Jim Laub is a professor of leadership studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University and has written extensively on servant leadership. He concludes that there are six core components of servant leadership: valuing people, developing people, displaying authenticity, providing leadership, sharing leadership, and building community. That last characteristic, building community, is the positive version of Patrick Lencioni’s famous book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
When we dig a little deeper into what Laub means by a servant leader being a builder of community, we find that he is specifically referring to two things. The first is that to build community you have to build strong relationships. This means that you have to not only spend a lot of time with the people on your team, but you have to decide to share your life with them. Lencioni points out that dysfunctional teams have an absence of trust, and this is because the leader is not serving the team by helping them come together. The second is that you have value the differences in others. Dysfunctional teams are marked by a fear of conflict that drives people to isolation rather than integration.
Jesus spent his life pouring into people through one-on-one relationships that later produced the teamwork of the early church. The rag-tag group of disciples didn’t become the Spirit-infused juggernaut overnight, but they learned to trust Jesus’ leadership through the personal investment he made in each of their lives. Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers in John 17 gives a small window into his heart’s desire for them. He wanted them to be truly unified and knew that they could only do this by keeping their eyes fixed on the unity Jesus displayed with the Father and the Spirit.
No Olympic team is perfect, but they are stronger together than they are separate. Similarly, Olympic athletes are only as strong as the teams they have supporting them, because the goal they’ve set for themselves is bigger than any one individual can accomplish.
Our leadership as Christians is never solitary, even though we may feel isolated and alone at times. Our relationship with Jesus is the fountainhead of power that pushes us to go beyond ourselves and join together with others in bringing God the utmost glory in our lives. Our society more than ever needs to see the fruit of Christian community at work in our families, our workplaces, and our civic life. Our gold medal is not in being applauded or praised for working together, but in bringing glory to God together. That heavenly reward pushes our leadership beyond whatever present hardship we face and suffuses us with a never-ending reservoir of hope in Jesus’ name.