How Relationships Build High Performance Teams

In the middle 1970’s I was sent to Teheran, Iran by Arthur D. Little consulting company. This is before the Iranian revolution and at that time the United States had close ties with the Shah of Iran.

As you might expect, there was little English spoken in the city.

I’m in the lobby of the hotel and surprised to find the TV tuned to a US Air Force station broadcasting from a base a few miles north of the city.

It’s ten o’clock in the evening, and I am really enjoying the news from home. At ten-thirty the news is over and an African-American sitting about 15 feet from me turns and asks “After the news do we get the Late Show?” I was overjoyed to hear someone at the hotel speak English. He was overjoyed to be understood.

“I’m Coach Johnson” he said, extending his hand.

He went on to tell me that he was the United States Olympic Boxing Coach and had been sent by the US State Department to Teheran for the purpose of training the Sri Lankan boxing team for the Asian games, starting in just a few days.

Training a boxing team for the Asian Games was a “project” that really caught my attention and we talked until the wee hours of the morning. I was curious about funding, feasibility, training schedules, milestones and all those thing that project managers have on their mind.

We became fast friends and for the next four weeks would wait for each other to return from work before going out to eat. But going out was not just a 20 minute walk to our favorite restaurant. The coach was one of the few black men in Iran, and people would often stare at him as we made our way through the crowded sidewalks of the city. Without missing a step the Coach would extend his hand and introduce himself. “I’m Coach Johnson from the US and it a pleasure to meet you. “ Here was the most incredible ambassador of goodwill that I had ever met. Forget that not a single person with whom he shook hands could understand what he said. They responded to his sincere interest in connecting with them and loved it!

Weekends, I would accompany him to the training camp and when the boxers had a scheduled match I would travel with him on the bus, pick up the boxers, ride with them to the arena and enjoy ringside seats.

On the first night, as the bus returned, Coach Johnson moved from boxer to boxer handing each one a white envelope.

As he took the seat next to me, I asked, “Coach, what’s in the envelope.”

He explained that the top military brass in Sri Lanka where heavily invested in developing a competitive boxing team. Many of them, he continued, were here in Teheran to attend the games. To show their appreciation, they hand me a white envelope every few days. Extra spending money, they would whisper to me.

But the coach had other ideas. He knew that the “kids” came from very poor families. “They need the money much more than I do,” he told me. So he went to a stationary store after he had received the first envelope and bought a stack of white envelopes. He then divided the money equally in fifteen envelopes. To each and every boxer he told the same thing. Write your mother’s name and address on the envelope. Tomorrow we will stop at the post office and you can mail this home.

As I watched him talk to his boxers and interact with the military brass, I gained tremendous respect for his abilities as a “project manager.” Yes, it was hierarchical (coach to boxers) and authoritarian (military brass) but even within this structure it became so apparent that the involvement and understanding of the project manager can make a big difference. As committed as he was to his boxers they were to him. Coach Johnson had succeeded in building a high performance team.

When he returned home from Teheran, Coach Thomas began training the U.S. boxing team for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Under his leadership the team brought home five gold medals.

Then in 1980, fourteen members of the U.S. amateur boxing team were flying from New York City to matches in Cracow and Katowice in a Polish IL- 62 jetliner. Near Warsaw’s Okecie Airport the plane crashed short of the runway. All 77 passengers were killed including their coach, Thomas (“Sarge”) Johnson.

  I lost a good friend, the boxing world lost a great coach and the country lost a great ambassador.

<< Back to Project Tips