A leader’s role is to massage the egos of their top players to ensure that, in their minds, they do not become bigger than the team. We have all seen teams of champions that, though they may have a strong start, do not turn into long-term champion teams—the American Olympic basketball “Dream Team” is one such example.
Considered the best national basketball team in the world, Team USA is historically the most successful team in international competition, medaling in all fifteen Olympic tournaments it has entered, coming away with twelve golds.
Traditionally composed of amateur players, a 1989 rule change allowed USA Basketball to field teams with professional players. The original “Dream Team” won the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. That team is often regarded as the greatest collection of talent on one team in basketball history. A second “Dream Team” competed in the 1994 Basketball World Championships, finishing first. In 1996 and 2000, Team USA once again captured gold medals.
However, Team USA’s dominance has lessened in recent years. Facing increased competition from international teams, helped in no small way by the focus of the opposition on teamwork. The opposing teams realized that they could never match the individual brilliance of Team USA, so they focused instead on becoming a brilliant team. The end result of this was that Team USA failed to win a medal at the 2002 World Championship, finishing sixth. The 2004 Summer Olympic team lost three games on its way to a bronze medal, a record that represented more losses in a single year than the country’s Olympic teams had suffered in all previous Olympiads combined.
Determined to put an end to these recent failures, USA Basketball has changed its philosophy and has looked to field complete teams instead of piecing together rosters of NBA All-Stars at the last minute. The “Dream Teams” enjoy the biggest names—all champions—but, due to their opposition’s continued focus on teamwork, their most recent results have fallen short of their individual star status.
In 2003, the Australian Cricket Team had a championship season. They were World Champions in both the long form of the game, test cricket, and the short form, one-day cricket.
The media asked the coach what the secret was to their success. He replied, “We are a great team, not a team of greats.” There were teams in the world that had a collection of higher ranked players than Australia, yet no one had comparable team commitment or work ethic.
That is a significant statement about leadership. The coach took no credit, nor did he point out one or two “stars.” The entire effort resulted in a great team. Now, we all know someone has to create the vision and implement the plan, but then the coach, CEO, department manager, or supervisor has to create the team that makes it all come together. Teamwork is essential in business as well—and this needs to start with the leader.
I was a member of a small management team early in my career. We were a group of inexperienced, eager, and enthusiastic young management types. We really supported each other and were growing together as a team. No one worried about getting the credit, just get as long as the job got done.
Unfortunately, we worked for a manager who managed as an individual, not as a team leader. Each of our team accomplishments became his individual win. It wasn’t long before we started to lose interest. We decided we had to act as a team and let him know our feelings, so we planned a meeting to discuss the issue. He was initially shocked, but to his credit, he apologized—he realized that, without our support, his role was in jeopardy.
Individual efforts are common in both sports and business, but over time that lack of chemistry will destroy a good team. It takes unselfish acts by all members of any team in order to succeed.
I have had the opportunity to be a small part of some great teams. It is such a joy to stay in touch with my teammates over the years, and to relive those experiences that we all shared in equally.