We Create the Culture and The Culture Creates Us

“Our success is driven by such an incredible culture with this team—culture on the floor, preparing, attention to detail, how we conduct ourselves off the court.”
Bill Behrns, Loyola (Chicago) Assistant Athletic Director

March Madness may be over, but I am still reveling in the Cinderella run of the Loyola University Ramblers. The performance of this team, led not only by Coach Porter Moser, but also team leaders, inspired everyone in the Chicago area, if not the entire nation, throughout their miraculous season. As one who lives a mere three miles from campus, I took a special interest in watching these young men compete on the court. I was equally impressed by their words and actions off the court. A great deal of the team’s success can be attributed to the culture they created and, in turn, what they became by that culture. In fact, if you watched any of their tourney games, you likely noticed the team’s “Created By Culture” T-shirts. 

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What they became, as individuals and as a team, was created by the culture that they created. We first create the culture and the culture creates us, influencing our attitudes, behaviors, commitments, and overall level of success. The more I watched and read about this team, the more I realized that the culture needed for success as a basketball team is not unlike the culture necessary for success in the schoolhouse. 

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To keep the team’s culture constantly in the forefront of the minds of team members, Moser installed a “Wall of Culture” in the locker room with dozens of words and phrases that are cornerstones of the team’s philosophy. These ever-present textual reminders are not only posted prominently, but also reviewed regularly by coaches and team members as a way to reinforce the daily habits, techniques, and mindsets that lead to the team’s long-term success.

Successful schools are similar, organizations with a strong culture in place, and led by individuals who regularly remind each other what is important, why it matters, and how they must behave to fulfill the school’s mission and achieve the school’s vision. Such schools even make the time to prominently display the school’s values throughout the school and in each individual classroom. During meetings, team members hold each other accountable for group norms and adhering to commonly shared values while always keeping their eye on the prize: student success.

During Loyola’s magical run, I would wake up every morning and read the latest features on the team in my morning Chicago Tribune. After their buzzer-beating victory over Miami in the opening round, columnist David Haugh mentioned that this was no accident, stating that, “At Loyola, they rehearse success.” When I coached high school basketball years ago, we also rehearsed success--in every aspect of the game. Prior to our opening game each season, we even practiced how we handled time outs during games. Many teams we competed against would simply call time out, whereupon players would saunter over to the bench and gather somewhat haphazardly to discuss strategy. On our team, we actually practiced each step of the process, including what a player should say if they needed a time out, how they should protect the ball if they were in possession of it when calling a timeout, how fast they should move to the bench (faster than other teams), where players in the game should sit (facing me, away from the stands), and where players not in the game should stand (behind me, facing the stands). There was a reason for everything we did as team, including small details like how we ran timeouts. At the end of the practice, one parent commented, “Wow, I have never seen a team practice timeouts before. You guys are really ready for everything.” The observation was gratifying and validated how important it was as coaches to prepare our athletes for every single event that occurs in a game. I suspect part of Loyola’s “rehearsing for success” includes practicing every possible event that can arise during an actual game.

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Successful schools rehearse for success also and there is a reason for everything they do and a way they go about doing it as they prepare for every classroom lesson and every staff meeting. Every administrator paints a vivid picture of what success for the school looks like for every staff member and outlines actions steps for achieving the vision. In the classroom, every teacher does the same, pointing and guiding students to an ultimate outcome while celebrating small wins along the way. Both invest intentional time to consistently getting better by reviewing where they are going, where they are now, and what they need to do next to close the gap while often reminding those they lead about cultural keys to success, holding all individuals on the “team”--in this case, staff members at the school or students in the classroom--accountable for adhering to commonly-shared values, norms, and behaviors necessary for achieving the vision.

Whether talking about successful schools or successful basketball teams, a critical key to success is creating an incredible culture. First, we create the culture and, if we maintain and reinforce it consistently, eventually the culture creates us. By creating a successful culture, we ensure that our culture will create success--for athletes on our basketball teams or for the students at our schools. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Sister Jean
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watching over you and cheering you on! Paying attention to the many small details that make up a school or classroom culture is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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