Teams of Individuals?

Reading an interesting article in Fortune Magazine entitled “How to Build Great Teams” made me think about the classic debate: do I want a team of superstars or a team of simply good people who work together superbly? The world is filled with examples of both, and this article seems to think “The A-Team” from classic TV is a great example. Whether or not you agree with that one, I can think of a number of examples from the real world.

At the risk of veering dangerously into the sports world, showing my allegiances, and taking this blog into the netherworld of incessant and ridiculous sports arguments, I think baseball has some crystal clear examples of the teams vs. individuals debate.

Take the New York Yankees (please…). Fueled by personal cash of George Steinbrenner and the near-infinite TV revenue of the NY market, the Yankees have consistently assembled the best players in Major League Baseball. With stars like Daryl Jetter, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, etc. the team is a veritable Hall-of-Fame-in-Waiting. Yet, their results are not commensurate with the caliber of the team. Sure they win championships, but they also have spectacular failures. Two years ago they melted down against the Boston Red Sox, this year they were summarily dismissed by the Detroit Tigers.

A group of great people is not necessarily a great team

What this shows is that a group of great people is not necessarily a great team. In fact, the qualities that make a great individual star are almost always the exact opposite of those that make a great team member. Superstars tend to be loners, obsessives, and egotists who concentrate so hard on their own performance that they fail to see the need for the rest of the team. A locker room filled with these people is a nightmare of conflicting egos and self-righteous bickering.

On the other hand, the world (especially the sports world) is filled with examples of amazing teams that grew from a rather unremarkable collection of people who bonded in some almost chemical fashion and rose to greatness. Seemingly out of nowhere comes this juggernaught of a team that achieves miracles, and leaves everyone wondering how it happened.

In my own personal circle, the 2001 Seattle Mariners were just such a team. Filled with good, but certainly not great, players the team bonded remarkably, and went on a season-long roll. They ended the year tying the record for the most wins in a season by any major league team (and then collapsed in the playoffs, as Seattle teams are required to do).

I had the pleasure of working that year with Jay Buhner, a former member of the team, and then part-time commentator for the club. He told of a team that was just a delight to be around. All of the players supported one another, they were all quite humble and “aw-shucks” about their winning streak, and they simply went out every day expecting to win. Success lead to success, the more they won, the more they thought they should win. They beat incredible teams (including the Yankees) by playing “small ball”, by simply assembling good performances from every member of the team. The year included very few “walk-off” home runs, very few dramatic and heroic efforts, just consist performances from a very good team.

People tell me that’s what we’re seeing this year from the Detroit Tigers. I remember them from 1984, when we lived nearby, a year that Sparky Anderson lead them to a world championship. They were this way as well. Just a group of above average players who became a great team. I guess they’re doing it again this year.

What this tells you as a manager of a team is that success doesn’t require superstars, just a great team. That team you have right there could be great, if you can find the magic to get them working together well. To paraphrase the Wizard of Oz, you don’t need to go out and get superstars to win, you proabably have all the team you need right there today.

You proabably have all the team you need right there today

It also tells you that, if you have superstars, it’s more important to help them to work with the team, than to help them to excel even more. I’ve seen more teams melt down because of conflicts with and resentment of superstars than any other cause. So, if you are blessed with them, watch closely their interactions with the team, and don’t be blinded by their magnificence. And if problems arise, carefully consider what the team might look like without them.

Finally, if you intend to win the world series, perhaps it’s the coach that matters more, not the players. Perhaps you need to buy a mirror… Much more on this fertile topic to follow.