What is esprit de corps and how can it help you to lead your team?
In terms of a definition, esprit de corps is ‘a spirit of solidarity; a sense of pride, and honour among the members of a group’.
It is a term most readily and normally applied in the military. This is not a modern concept; both the Romans and the Greeks had leaders who understood that by creating an organisational structure that allows for smaller groups to develop a sense of team spirit within a larger force, you can turn huge numbers of people into an agile, dynamic, and unstoppable force.
I grew up in a military family and my father used to take me to his Royal Air Force squadron crew room from an early age. Being in that atmosphere from a toddler through to my teens, I loved the tangible sense of camaraderie that existed amongst my dad’s colleagues and friends. A crew room was always vibrant with banter and laughter and a great deal of pride in the squadron itself — this wasn’t just the regalia and badges that adorned the walls; it was always evident when either discussing other squadrons or in competitive situations like sport, joint exercises, or even just in the completion of their
Shared experiences and a shared language made the squadron members unique and bonded them together. The desire to not let the squadron (and therefore their friends) down drove people in all aspects of their military lives to greater levels of performance than if they had been working alone.
I remember playing football for my dad’s squadron as a 16-year-old. Following a particularly nasty foul against me, the entire team shouted ’Tiger’ and all hell broke loose as Tiger squadron exacted revenge on my behalf.
What was interesting to me was then seeing my Dad represent the RAF against the Army in football. Squadrons fell into a larger group with its own esprit de corps, to unite against the Army team. Seeing this in my early life and then later in sports (where I was always drawn to team sports naturally) meant that when I became a leader in business I always wanted to ensure my team developed and utilised this amazing power.
It was and always is the first task on my to-do list when it comes to leading teams. Of course I know I am not unique in writing about how harnessing the concept of esprit de corps in business can pay huge dividends.
These dividends include, but are not restricted to, increased motivation, higher employee engagement, improved results and (importantly for me) a real sense of fun, worth and belonging.
In a 2000 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Let’s Put More Esprit in de Corporation’, B.Houston discusses what he perceives to be signs of strength and health in a company. Of the various factors he identifies as important to healthy organisations, esprit de corps is at the top of the list.
Houston also stated that ‘Esprit de corps is based around a group of individuals belonging to a special group or body, and having strength in the knowledge that it forms part of what they stand for or believe in, how others (outsiders) perceive them, and how they relate to fellow members (insiders).
For genuine esprit de corps to develop you must have a conscious intention to focus on your team’s culture.
A recent great example of this focus was the esprit de corps developed by Gareth Southgate with the England football team. He spent a great deal of time visiting other great teams and understood that as important as tactics and player coaching are, the concept of a team culture or esprit de corps was just as important — some would argue more important than anything. The team’s spirit and togetherness was apparent and has lasted and led to the team now being perceived more positively.
To develop esprit de corps means investing the time to:
- Know your team members – truly know them as people, not as just a people who
- As a leader be personal; talk about what the group means to you and don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Show personal appreciation.
- Set high standards for the group and follow up on those.
- Understand that morale is extremely important and dedicate the time to create, foster and maintain this.
- Create a sense of unique identity. I once gave my team a name unique to us and
printed black business cards for every member with our name on it. I reminded them the name symbolised who we were and what we stood for in terms of standards and this was a physical reminder. This was some 10 years ago and recently a team member sent me a photo the card still in his wallet.
- Always maintain open communication.
- Provide support to all members of your team.
- Tell your team a story. Tell them where we are today, where we want to be; the part they can play, and what is in it for them.
- Be competitive – tell your team you want to outperform other teams/competitors – light the fire and talk about it.
- Some element of siege mentality can be helpful (but be careful with this one…)
- Always communicate — prioritise and make the time to communicate all the
time — people want to know what is happening where they work.
- Have fun. Both in work and out of work – shared experiences and shared laughter and jokes are the glue that keeps a team together and reminds them of the human interactions and connections that have been formed.
Naturally there is more to this than just listing the above, but for each one, I could give an example of where I have applied this, sometimes failed and refined and tried again — and I’m more than happy to discuss this in more detail — indeed, the company I now work at can provide tailored training or consultancy for your teams in this area if required.
As a leader the decisions you make — and every action you take — must align with your team’s purpose and core beliefs. To build esprit de corps in your team your actions must be true to your words.
If you can create a sense of esprit de corps in your team it is something that not only will serve you and the team members well now but the sense of belonging and shared principles and experiences will stay with you all for the rest of your lives.