by Ruth Wageman on

Have you noticed that we always seem to celebrate “great” individuals? Harvard Business Review names the best 100 CEOs around the world, Forbes has its annual 40 under 40 (the most influential “young people”), Fortune has its World’s Greatest Leaders, Time has its 100 Most Influential of the Year.

What I want to know is, where are the celebrations of great teams?  Is it possible that these lauded individuals are actually lifted up on the shoulders of superb teams?  (Shout out to Harvey Floyd for starting this conversation!)

The myth of the heroic individual leader is really hard to shake.  Everyday observers, and not a few leadership scholars, tend to view leaders as a dominant influence on collective performance. But are leaders really a main, or the main, influence on what transpires in social systems?  Or does our tendency to view them that way merely reflect what Meindl (1990) called the “romance” of leadership? Consider, for example, how we explain an athletic team that has winning season after winning season. “That John Wooden at UCLA!” we exclaim. “What a basketball coach he was!” Or reflect on a team that has had a few losing seasons: It is the coach who is fired. Richard Hackman and I refer to this tendency to point to the leader as the main cause of collective performance as the leader attribution error.  The leader attribution error is understandable, because of the high visibility of leaders and the relative invisibility of structural factors that may be in play, it is pervasive, and it is powerful (team members as well as outside observers are vulnerable to it).

Logically, we know that one individual, no matter how talented, can’t deliver the success of a complex enterprise alone.  Actually, even Forbes inadvertently recognizes that truth. Their 2019 40 under 40 list included the team of women who co-founded The Wing, a fleet of women-centric co-working spaces.  HBR lionizes Jensen Huang of Invidia…but has to identify him as “co-founder.” In fact, every one of these lists at least has a pair of people, acknowledging that major trends, disruptions, successes and inventions are probably not attributable to the contributions of one.

Great teams result in three things:

  1. They perform.  They know who their constituents are, whom they exist to serve, and they deliver work that meets the needs of those constituents.  For a leadership team, that can be a complex array of stakeholders, sometimes with competing agendas. But a superb team balances those tradeoffs and actively manages their stakeholders needs.  They innovate, imagine, and create.

  2. They get better over time.  They learn from their work what enables them to be increasingly smart, agile, and effective, and they develop practices that make that happen.

  3. They contribute positively to the learning, growth, and wellbeing of their members.  Great teams don’t mainly drain our energy or leave us feeling incompetent: instead, they foster engagement, resourcefulness, and intellectual growth.

What if we stopped the leader attribution error, and decided to celebrate some teams of people who accomplish great things?  What if we stopped pretending that the individual is the unit of performance? Harold Leavitt wrote a great article in the 70s entitled “Suppose We Took Groups Seriously?” and talked about the radical implications of selecting, hiring, assessing and rewarding teams of people.  He said it was a “fantasy, but not a utopian fantasy.”

We want to start the trend.  Share with us: Do you know a brilliant team that deserves to be celebrated?