A Mental Model in Leadership

By: Drew Carlson

What can we learn from the Boston Bruins?

A loaded question.

A better question might be, what is one idea they are really executing on we could all learn from?

They are using a mental model within their team that is yielding sustained success.

First some background on their strategy.

They use small unit leadership, but they take it a step further. For some context, here is a snippet from a post I wrote about Boston in my blog.

Bruce Cassidy has implemented something very unique to the Bruins culture. They are afforded this ability with tremendous leadership from their huge core of players. The Bruins have so much leadership that each player has one other player that he is responsible for. Chara had McAvoy, Bergeron had Kuraly… all the way down the roster. One leader has one player to mentor, look after, up-skill, and hold accountable to the standards of the Bruins. Even when a player like David Backes was scratched during the playoffs a few years ago which was a big deal, he still had an obligation to check in and see how his one teammate he was responsible for was doing and feeling. He had an obligation to be a great teammate even when he could have been upset about his personal circumstances. It’s much harder to be selfish when you have to model correct behavior and mentor a teammate. It’s no wonder why this team consistently is in the hunt every year. 

The mental model they are using has been called, “Principals and Agent Problem” by George MacGill.

At 41:10 of the video, he explains this mental model quite well.


Former Ohio State football coach, Urban Meyer has a similar term called, “diffusion of effort.” It highlights:

  • 1 to 1 will yield the greatest effort
  • The more people you add, the more people start to look around and say, “if I don’t give my best effort, nobody will notice because there are more of us.”

This is why great business minds like Naval Ravikant only want to work on projects with one other person. There is more skin in the game with fewer people involved.

But when an NHL roster is over 20 players and coaching staffs put that number over 30, you can’t work with one other person to create the most amount of “shared responsibility”

Or can you?

To make players feel more responsible, give them one person to be responsible for.

It’s easy for a player to “check out” of a practice.

It becomes harder to do when they have someone to look after.

It’s easy to skip the gym after practice.

It becomes harder to skip a lift with your buddy after practice because you’re letting another human down.

20 teammates create a diffusion of effort, one other buddy creates accountability and ownership to both of your development.

How can you take steps to get closer to this in your team?