I offer great thanks to Susan Carr, of Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare, for this lovely review of Goal Play!

In my column in the July/August issue of PSQH, I mentioned three books I read earlier this summer. I’d like to say a bit more about one of the three, Paul Levy’s Goal Play! Levy uses stories from more than 20 years of experience coaching girls’ soccer teams to illustrate leadership principles with wide applicability. He adds examples and case studies from the industries and institutions in which he has worked, with many examples representing his nine years as CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston.

Levy’s book is immediately appealing because he covers key concepts in leadership and management without jargon or pretense. His direct, personal writing style will be familiar to readers of his blog, (Not) Running a Hospital. Many topics in Goal Play!—especially the use of Lean process improvement—are also familiar from Levy’s blog, but in the book, he puts Lean in context. Adding motivation, competitiveness, and purpose—of individuals and the teams in which they work and play—gives Lean depth. In Levy’s telling, Lean becomes a constant practice rather than a project or initiative. Lean and its core concept, Gemba, describe an environment where executives and employees or coaches and teams at all levels explore and learn together, creating value and accomplishing work driven by a common purpose. Using stories from varied settings, Levy grounds these concepts in the real world, which puts muscle on aspects of teamwork that otherwise may go a bit soft.

Levy successfully conveys the complexity of the leader’s responsibility for fostering an environment in which [employees] “…use their native intelligence, creativity, and enthusiasm to solve problems in an inevitably changing environment.” That requires leaders to have an authentic connection to the people actually doing the work and an understanding of what the work requires—important aspects of Gemba.

In counterpoint to Gemba, Levy describes the destructive effect of isolation on teams by recounting what he calls the “Nut Island Effect.” In an article for The Harvard Business Review in 2001, Levy described a dysfunctional team dynamic he inherited when he became executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority in the late 1980s. There he observed a team of “skilled and dedicated employees” working at the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Boston Harbor, which had become isolated from “distracted top managers.”

The “Nut Islanders” worked together well as a team and were committed to a shared purpose, but had no meaningful connection to MWRA leadership and, in fact, avoided contact with management whenever possible. Because the team was obviously skilled and invested in the work, self-sufficiency is generally considered a virtue, and wishful thinking is a powerful dynamic, it seemed reasonable for management to leave the Islanders well enough alone. For complex reasons, this dynamic led to the team releasing untreated sewerage into Boston Harbor repeatedly—in direct opposition to MWRA’s mission to clean up pollution in the harbor.

The Nut Island Effect underlines the dangers of paying lip service to teamwork principles—loyalty, work ethic, self-sufficiency, among others. Just going through the motions can be counterproductive, which is a deceptively simple lesson. In Goal Play! Levy effectively reveals underlying motivations in this case and others, often reinforcing his message with examples drawn from girls’ soccer teams. Initially, I wondered if his focus on middle-school soccer wouldn’t be too obvious, too easy, but in the end, there’s nothing like the wisdom of a 12-year-old to bring important things into perspective.

Levy does a nice job of balancing complexity with simplicity and intellectual concepts with real-world experience. Goal Play! is a worthy addition to anyone’s leadership library.