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August 30, 2006

When NOT to Be a Team Player

Leadership is the art of getting everyone else to be a team player. But leaders – and this includes CEOs and entrepreneurs – are only team players if you count captains as members of the team.  Good decision making is not a team sport.  There also comes a time for team members NOT to be team players.

Winston Churchill wrote: “Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together – what do you get? The sum of all their fears.”

Churchill himself was despised in his own Conservative Party in the time leading up to World War II because he refused to go along with the convenient consensus that appeasing Hitler was a good idea.

A good leader listens to other members of a team.  A good leader encourages ideas from every member of a team and encourages everyone to debate ideas.  But a good leader decides which ideas to pursue herself or himself – and makes clear to the team that this is what’s going to happen at the end of the discussion.

Achieving consensus by choosing a middle ground between two clear ideas usually means proceeding in a muddle.  Groups, acting on the sum of their fears, tend to be reasonable.  Listen to George Bernard Shaw on reasonable:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

If you are a member of a group which has just made a decision – or had a decision imposed on it, you have two choices: get with the idea or resign. Either course is honorable assuming the plan itself is honest and legal.  But, if you stick around, it is time to be a team player. Staying and trying to undermine a decision you don’t agree with is dishonorable and unhelpful. Note that a good leader defines the duties of the team in implementing a plan to include looking for signs that the plan ISN’T working. Plans do need to be tuned.  Plans often need to be abandoned.  You can’t know if a plan is working unless you try to make it work; you don’t learn by trying to make it fail.

If a plan is failing – whether you agreed with that plan or not – and if the team refuses to acknowledge that the plan is failing, that’s a time NOT to be a team player. Speak up.  You won’t win any popularity contests that way; but, if you’re right, you’ll certainly help your organization and probably help your career.  If you’re working in a place where the bearer of bad news is always punished, your career and probably the organization are already in lots of trouble. Move on.

If you are on a team as a representative of other people, you have NO right to be a team player. Clearly too many directors of public companies have ignored their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders while being “good” members of the corporate team. No excuse for that.

Same goes for elected officials. At the moment a bill to create a public, searchable database of all federal grants and contracts which was voted unanimously passed in committee is being held from full Senate vote by a single anonymous senator (info and link from Center for Citizen Media Blog). Senatorial courtesy – a particularly undemocratic form of team play – both allows this hold and is presumably keeping 99 other senators including Barack Obama and Tim Coburn, who cosponsored the bill, from letting the public know who is so desperate to keep this public information secret.  This is not a time for our senators to be team players.

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