The End of Fierce Individualism

America loves a fierce individualist. And yes, there is something inspiring about the lone enterpriser and large business executive blazing a path into the valuable future. And yet, while our culture will always celebrate the individual, Bruce Piasecki insists that the business world must acknowledge the truth behind the (alleged) Aristotle quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In other words, the near future will be all about innovation for sustainable value creation, led by teams.

In a world that becomes more complex by the day, ‘command and control’ is out, and employee engagement is in. The days when a larger-than-life personality is allowed to steamroll over the rest of the company are over. This destroys morale, which destroys results. Teams, not individuals, drive performance.

Make no mistake,. The best organizations, the ones with real staying power, are fueled by well-run teams.

Teams are more important than ever because the way we work and do business has changed. Within the fierce competition that is the global economy, companies that get fast results because they excel at collaboration and innovation will rise to the top and rule the day. And the ideas that allow an organization to achieve, grow, and prosper (as opposed to merely survive) will be created only when teams leverage their combined skills and hold themselves mutually accountable. No individual, no matter how brilliant, is likely to have the skill set to take projects from start to finish in this fast-paced and complex environment.

Great teams are led by captains. Like many popular terms, the word “leader” has become so overused and commonplace that it has lost all meaning. Anybody can call himself or herself a leader, it seems. Anybody can follow the “dos” and “don’ts” in leadership manuals. But it takes a special type of leader—a captain—to create not just a loose affiliation of individuals but a true team that’s centered around shared values and focused on a common goal.

Fierce individualism has no place in teams. Captains need to be sure that “the MVP syndrome” is not allowed to define their teams and be on the alert for individuals who might be losing sight of the team that gave them an identity—the group with whom they worked to produce the fame for which they are now known. It is in such situations that workplace ills such as favoritism, sexism, and even criminal activity like embezzlement tend to flourish.

Teams hold the bar high for everyone (especially the superstars). In all teams there is an inherent desire to protect our superstars and keep them winning. (Never mind all the others whose quieter, though no less critical, contributions are downplayed.)

We are all aware of conditions when everyone else was willing to go along with a wrong. We recall instances in recent history where the politics of fear enabled the Nazis, and where embezzlement seems the norm. Yet it is harder to see when victory shines so brightly. Captains must be mindful of this very human tendency. We must be willing to ferret out corruption in the highest echelons, to bench the MVP, even to fire the superstar for the good of the team and the sake of integrity.

Teams have to be willing to lose sometimes or they will eventually self-destruct. When teams keep winning, they can become addicted to victory—feel entitled to it even—and this is what drives them to illicit extremes. The lesson is clear: When we don’t learn to tolerate failure, we will do anything to keep the public adulation coming.

No one can always win. An inability to tolerate failure makes a team easy prey for ‘the dark side.’

Great teams revel in the pleasure of persistence and the sheer thrill of striving. Knowing that we will stumble and fall from time to time, yet get up and try again with some success, is at the heart of a great team. Life can be a tough slog, and victories are sporadic at best. Maybe we can’t win but we can keep going. This striving brings with it its own unique rewards. It is up to us to learn to appreciate them.

Successful teams share values, integrity, and a commitment to one another. In preparing for a team event, or in becoming a member of a team, a transformation occurs where team members end their individual associations and create a team identity through sharing with others the experience of that process. Once the team is created, a strong bond is already in place from that preparation, from the obstacles everyone had to overcome to get there.

Teams must feel “at home” with uncertainty and complexity. In a world getting faster, flatter, and more competitive every day, uncertainty and complexity are the rule rather than the exception. Teams and their captains need to be comfortable functioning in such an environment.

Effective teams take risks. Because business climates are constantly changing, teams and the captains who lead them know that yesterday’s guidelines can quickly become obsolete. That’s why they don’t allow themselves to be overly bogged down by rule following and order taking. Rather, they push boundaries when it’s proper (in other words, when ethical and moral lines aren’t being crossed), because the greatest innovations happen beyond existing laws and rules. When led by great captains, teams regularly work beyond normal and limiting boundaries to increase productivity and success.

The word ‘team’ is more than just a business buzzword. If done well, building and captaining a team will determine whether you merely survive or instead thrive in this strange new economy.