The Awful Truth About Teamwork

“Look over your shoulder now and then to be sure someone’s following you.” – Henry Gilmer

In Dick Lyles’ book “Winning  Ways”, a parable on success, Albert is hampered in business by his inability to work as a team member. His supervisor tells him to visit a local college-football coach for advice. What he gets are four rules:

1. Make people feel stronger rather than weaker.

2. Team-built projects are better than those built by individuals.

3. Avoid right/wrong absolutist thinking.

4. Focus on building toward the future, not complaining about the past.

Like most self-help stuff on the market these days, “Winning Ways” has a dash of insight, a cup of common sense, and a gallon of lukewarm water.

Lyles and many other business writers view business as a kind of egalitarian sporting event where all contributions to the team are equally valued and equally rewarded. In such a world, it makes good sense to treat all suggestions as good, all ideas as sound, and all efforts as valuable.

To run a team in that sort of world, Lyles’ leader would give everybody, every suggestion, and every interest all the support possible. He would make every team member feel good and make every team effort a pleasant one.

In the real world, this is exactly what you don’t want to do.  In the competitive world of private enterprise, businesses strive to grow and prosper — not by treating all their workers the same but by recognizing that they are almost all different. Some will contribute more than others, some will work harder than others, some will come up with lots of good ideas, and others will hardly ever think of anything but the next coffee break.

Successful business leaders — and successful coaches, too — treat all their team members with equal respect but have different expectations for each one. The expectations (and the responsibilities that derive from them) are based on individual performance, not on ideological beliefs. A basketball coach, for example, will ask the guy who has an 88% free-throw average to shoot penalty shots — not the guy who drops only half the balls in the bucket.

Great business leaders search out among their employees those who can do more, think better, work harder, and care more deeply — and assign those individuals different and more significant levels of responsibility. In other words, making a team — or a business — work is not about believing blindly in equality. It’s about recognizing and taking advantage of inequality. The basic business organization is hierarchical. One man on top, several men under him, several men under each of those, and so on.

There is a reason for this. Businesses are complicated affairs. You need lots of experience to run one properly. You also need experience to develop a profit instinct — and a profit instinct is absolutely critical to the success of any business. The hierarchical organization puts a priority on experience and gives to those who have proven themselves the greater power.

The hierarchical structure is not primarily interested in reaching a consensus. Its main goal is to achieve an objective. It does so by placing authority where it belongs.

Great business leaders run their companies mostly through a chain of command. When they lead teams, they run them the way good coaches run their teams — by treating everyone with an equal amount of respect and by pushing everyone to contribute as much as he is capable of contributing to the cause.

Having a group of employees work together as a team is very effective when you need to get something specific done by a particular time and you need the cooperation of a group of people to do so. But even then, you will do better if the team has a strong leader who is the undisputed top dog — the man who has ultimate power and whose experience, judgment, and motivations must be trusted.

As far as Dick Lyles’ four rules about teamwork are concerned, I’d revise them as follows.

1. Make weaker people stronger and stronger people weaker when and as it suits the general good of the business.

2. Let your team know that good products/projects require the input of many people but that only one person with one vision should have the final say.

3. Consider all sides of any important question — but when you come to a decision about what to do, make it definitive. Black-and-white is easy for everyone to understand. Gray is not.

4. Analyze mistakes carefully — and publicly — to understand and communicate what went wrong. Try not to embarrass the mistake makers, but don’t make the avoidance of embarrassment your top priority.

(Ed. Note. The above is an excerpt from MMF’s soon-to-be-published book leadership book. You can reserve a copy today for just $10, 50% off the cover price. To reserve your copy please send contact information to and a member of our team will call to take your order.)