In a previous blog post, I discussed the idea of focusing on team identity rather than worrying about the difficult issue of culture. The efficacy of this approach is based on Social Identity Theory, which basically suggests that when I consider myself part of a group, I begin to think and act like a group member. This post builds on that idea by considering elite team identity as an element of developing high performance teams.


With its roots in military leadership practices, Action Based Leadership™ promotes the emulation of an elite team identity, but it’s reasonable to ask whether team identity creates improved performance, or whether a feeling of identity arises out of better performance. Longitudinal research performed by the University of Sussex looking at 45 teams from 14 different sports found that “team identity causes a highly significant increase in perceived and actual team performance”. In fact, the University of Sussex research found that after 6 months, the team with the strongest identities outperformed those with weak identities by a shocking 53%.


This clearly begs the question, what creates a strong team identity? We can look at elite teams for some important lessons and examples.


Focus on Mission
Elite teams are single-minded when it comes to the mission. The US Army Ranger’s creed states, “Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.” Few business teams ever need to fight to the last man, but the dedication to a compelling mission creates improved performance nonetheless. See this previous blog post on creating a compelling team mission statement.



To the uninformed outsider, there might appear to be little difference between teams, for example, both the British SAS and US Delta Force play similar functional roles. Even the US Navy SEALs and Russian Spetsnaz have more in common than different to those outside the special operations community. However, ask a SpecOps operator and you will no doubt be firmly corrected as to the distinctiveness (and superiority) of whichever group you are addressing a member of! Elite teams bond around a shared understanding of the team’s distinctive method of operating and approach to winning, as well as key elements of symbolism, ritual, and tradition.



High standards for recruitment are common in elite teams, one reason for this is perhaps because once you are ‘in’ there’s a full acceptance of your membership. The notion of being ‘one of us’ is a key element that allows team members to internalize the team identity into who they are. A sense of belonging can be a powerful motivator, as Peter Block stated, “Community offers the promise of belonging… To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.”


Given the University of Sussex’s findings that identity creates performance, we’re perhaps not so far away from leading elite teams as we might think. The foundational elements of an elite team identity can be created by the deliberate actions of a leader. Additional elements should be co-created within the team for them to become authentic elements of the unique team identity.


One thing is clear though, the University of Sussex research showed that teams with weak identities tend to devolve over time, whereas strengthening team identity is typically the result of a specific plan.