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Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness by Owen Eastwood

“Performance and well-being are interwoven,” leading performance coach Owen Eastwood told an online forum with South African cricketer JP Duminy. “We perform at our best when we are feeling good about ourselves; not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. It’s pretty obvious, but it’s been lost along the way.” 

The conversation, hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), explored strategies for getting the best from teams, whether in a sporting or work context, effective leadership and how to embrace diversity. 

In his new book, Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness, Eastwood discusses strategies to unlock the highest levels of togetherness and performance.

Throughout his career, he has applied his ideas in high-performing settings encompassing sport, business, the arts, and the military.

“If you are lucky or privileged enough to get into an elite, high-performance environment you are exposed to enlightened, inspirational leadership; you are surrounded by high standards and have a real sense of purpose about what you’re doing. You have motivation which is shared by the people around you and it’s just a great environment to be in,” Eastwood said. 

He was inspired to write Belonging after questioning why the same practices, focus on culture and enlightened leadership isn’t available to everybody whether at school, on a sports team or in the workplace. 

Environment and its effect on performance. 
A study conducted by the English Institute of Sports found that 70% of human behaviour is determined by the environment you are in. “We are very malleable and adaptable to our environment,” Eastwood explained, which in turn, fundamentally influences culture. “What are the standards? What is the sense of trust? Do we have a shared identity? Do we know what we are trying to achieve together?” 

In some sports, such as gymnastics and ballet, there has been a belief in creating a tough environment in order to find out which individuals can handle the pressure: 
“For many years there has been this idea that we really need to be harsh and hard on people both physically and mentally in order to get the best performance from them,” Eastwood said.  

However, “some absolutely amazing talent gets lost because they don’t have the resilience at that particular age. We should be promoting well-being and let all the talent have an opportunity to shine,” he continued. 

Embracing diversity as a strength
Former international cricketer JP Duminy, who played 46 test matches for the Proteas between 2004 and 2019, said that while society teaches us to have a hard exterior, he has been able to perform at his best when he felt a sense of belonging and appreciation. “Freedom isn’t freedom until you have the freedom to fail. Take the focus off just your performance, and rather consider how you can best serve the team and your environment.” 

The best leaders are those who invite diverse people to come to the table and give everyone an equal footing: “It’s not about leaders having all the answers, it is about everyone having a voice.” 

Duminy said authentic connection as a team happened “when you allow each other to share. If you can truly look past differences and regard each other as teammates, you will rely on each other and get to know each other on a deeper level.” 

Eastwood explained that people thrive when hierarchies get flattened. “This generation really live this. They don’t want to be plugged into a hierarchy, they want to have a voice and be respected.” 

People have different ways of thinking about the team. Western, capitalist societies are highly individualistic and focus on the individual and their achievements, while it is more common among Asian and African societies to put the family, tribe or team ahead of the individual. “It takes good, skilled leadership to weave the two together,” Eastwood said. 

Storytelling can be a very compelling tool for businesses to create a connection between disparate individuals with specific goals who may not have a strong shared identity like a national sports team does. 
Curating an origin story can be useful to communicate the organisation’s clear values and vision. 

Standards that everyone in the team has to sign up to, such as a belief that the team comes before the individual, are a useful starting point and can draw disparate individuals together. 

Leadership and navigating conflict 
Eastwood explained that often people can be categorised as ‘difficult’ when their motivations and background are not fully understood by those around them. You are able to empathise with others when you understand them.

The best model for being a great leader or coach is parenting, Eastwood said: “While it isn’t a reference point for everybody, when one of your kids is being difficult, you don’t have a reflex to get rid of them. Yet, in the workplace we tend to have a completely different model for how to get the best out of people and how to address challenging situations.  It is a really flawed way to approach challenging situations and is incredibly unhelpful,” he added. 

“A leader” Eastwood concluded, “is someone who has the intention to uplift the people around them, and they can’t do that if they’re selfish and not kind. We all need to have awareness of how our environment affects us. People around us will thrive in a good environment and leaders have the responsibility to do whatever they can to create that.
That is the starting point of a great leader.”  

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