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We celebrate, reward and promote the high-flyers, without due appreciation for the fact that cohesion, culture, shared values and a collective team consciousness far outstrip individual brilliance.

“Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronised flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”

Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat

One of the universal languages of all, sport often produces the most valuable lessons. And the most impactful teachers. And it doesn’t speak only to sports fans. You don’t need to understand the minutiae of baseline play to appreciate the discipline and precision that has made Roger Federer one of the greatest tennis players ever, or the intricacies of the upper-cut shot to marvel at the artistry of Sachin Tendulkar. In fact, it matters little whether you are fluent in a particular sporting code’s cadence or have just a passing understanding of the game, to find value and inspiration in winning performances. This is true across all codes, and for every player that rises above the pack: Schumacher, Senna and Hamilton in Formula 1; Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in basketball; Ali, Tyson and Mayweather in boxing, Usain Bolt, Haile Gebrselassie and Carl Lewis in track and field. From different parts of the world, competing in different fields, these sporting greats share a common trait: indisputable, laser-focused individual brilliance. And the determination and zeal to power their potential into the highest possible gear.

But individual brilliance is often only one side of the story. And in some cases, it’s the wrong story altogether.

Look at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Globally, the first half of 2006 was a hot mess. The war in Iraq was raging full tilt. So was genocide in Darfur and government-sanctioned torture at Guantanamo. Newspaper headlines bled scandal, high crimes and a dizzying array of misdemeanours about Enron, natural disasters, and the escalating climate crisis. So when the 2006 FIFA World Cup rolled around, an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world tuned in for the magical, masterful distraction the beautiful game typically provides. On balance, they were not disappointed, from Maxi Rodríquez’s extra time stunner against Mexico – still considered one of the greatest solo-effort goals in FIFA history – to the tournament-long brilliance of Zinedine Zidane. But then came England’s so-called Golden Generation, a mega-watt squad of celebrity all-stars, for whom lifting the 2006 World Cup trophy should have been a sure thing. On paper, the squad had no obvious weaknesses and an embarrassment of individual talent in the form of David Beckham, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand – all of whom, with the possible exception of 20-year-old Rooney, were at or near the apex of their careers. And yet, 2006 would prove to be one of England’s weakest, most disappointing World Cup performances. From their opening game until the moment they were brutally exited by Portugal in the quarterfinals, England was adrift. The all-stars appeared uniformly uncomfortable, unfocused and unhinged. Moments of individual brilliance did, of course, materialise, but mostly it was too little, too late, as the team demonstrated – painfully and repetitively – that they weren’t a team at all.

David Beckham and English manager Sven Göran Eriksson In assembling the 11 strongest English players at club level, team manager Sven Göran Eriksson had committed the cardinal sin of individualism – relying on high-performing players to organically coalesce into a high-performing collective. Contrast this to the German team of that same year. Germany didn’t win the 2006 World Cup – the trophy was lifted by Italy that year – but Die Mannschaft, as the team is affectionately known, surprised their compatriots and the wider football fraternity by advancing to the semi-finals. And not by fluke. Germany’s unexpected success throughout the tournament was later revealed to have been the consequence of a carefully crafted strategy of team first – a purposeful approach to showing up and playing as a team. There were few individual stands-outs, and even fewer stand-out moments, but their march to the semi-finals was stoic, deliberate and precise – in large part because there were no individual stand-outs. And because winning wasn’t everything; team was. For Germany, the 2006 World Cup was all about cohesion and momentum, and creating, in the words of Ben Wyatt, “a collective resilience, a shared vision, a communal resistance to setback and a refusal to be deterred from a group destiny”.

All-stars are great. But individual brilliance is not enough. And often, organisations who structure themselves around the David Beckhams and Wayne Rooneys in their teams find that the performance they are looking for falls apart in the underwhelming sum of their parts.

A major reason for this lies in our elevation of individualism over collectivism. We celebrate, reward and promote the high-flyers, without due appreciation for the fact that cohesion, culture, shared values and a collective team consciousness far outstrip individual brilliance. Just ask Sven Göran Eriksson. Or better yet, Satya Nadella. As Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, Satya introduced a “culture renovation” at the tech-giant to re-imagine its previous cut-throat approach to performance. As a result, the organisation adopted what it termed a 'growth mindset' philosophy. The objective, among others, was to “actively discourage the culture of genius, in which individuals use their intelligence competitively, instead of co-operatively or in pursuit of shared success”. The clearest measure of this philosophy can be found in Microsoft’s evolved performance management approach, which upended the traditional KPI measurement model. Instead of asking its people about individual accomplishments and measuring individual success, Microsoft now poses three core performance questions:

  1. What have been your key accomplishments in contributing to the team, the business or customer results?

  2. What results have you achieved in building on the work, ideas and efforts of others?

How have you contributed to the success of others?Team First. Microsoft’s philosophy – and Germany’s 2006 World Cup strategy – is not about dimming individual brilliance. Rather, it is about creating equal opportunity for everyone in the team to grow, build and learn together. It is a collective consciousness of shared excellence, in which a group of people are immersed in the same language and a shared ideology. It’s an immersion that liberates individuals into their own greatness, as well as the team. How have I contributed to the team? How have I built on the work of others? How have I contributed to YOUR success? Undoubtedly, the German and English players competing in the 2006 FIFA World Cup would have answered these questions very differently. How would you answer them today?

© Natalie Maroun


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