“We applaud the home run because it’s easier to see Babe Ruth,” said serial tech entrepreneur Colin O’Donnell. Colin launched and led the seminal digital/physical technology and design company, Control Group, before it was acquired by a subsidiary of Google in 2015. I was researching my first book and had just ten minutes to unearth the secrets of entrepreneurial leadership as he ran along the New York sidewalk to his next meeting.
“If Babe wasn’t supported by his team who consistently bring in the wins, it wouldn’t work. Just focusing on the few interesting leaders who have broken the mould obscures the massive business machine behind them. There is an untold story of amazing operators focused on making sure their business is successful. Leadership is like the baseball strategy of consistently hitting line drives, versus swinging for home runs.”
It struck home. Ex-ad man Mark Earls revealed how Western individualism has produced the stubborn belief that some individuals are better, cleverer and more knowledgeable than others. There is only one Babe Ruth. In this cultural frame, The Leadership Myth presents a lone wolf focused on solitary glory. But real business leadership is delivered by teams.
Collective entrepreneurship – a term used to describe the group of co-founders, advisors and helpers that sustain new businesses – benefits from diverse views and skills, a range of financial and human capital. Venture capitalists ascribe more importance to the capabilities of the team, rather than a talented leader. There is some evidence that team ventures edge ahead in revenue and performance. The notion that collective intelligence can produce better results than individuals rings true time and time again.
Robert Reich, who served three US administrations, urged readers of the Harvard Business Review to recognize and reward the team as the hero. The American Dream is built on “the familiar tale of triumphant individuals, of enterprising heroes who win riches and rewards through a combination of Dale Carnegie-esque self-improvement, Norman Vincent Peale-esque faith, Sylvester Stallone-esque assertiveness and plain old-fashioned good luck.”
Yet refusing to acknowledge the presence and talent of the hero leader’s team stymies economic success. “We need to honour our teams more, our aggressive leaders and maverick geniuses less,” he argued. If you want to see vivid examples of teamwork, don’t look in your newspaper’s business section, he says. Look to the sports pages. Teams win. This is a long game.
Reich called for a collective entrepreneurship in the eighties. Ten years later, the concept of post-heroic leadership surfaced, advocating businesses driven through consensus with co-workers, not the unitary command of a “great man”. Scholars admit post-heroic business remains “mostly invisible” outside academic journals.
Another ten years and the word ‘collective’ still clashes with the free-market economic principles that underscore our understanding of leadership. “As a society, we are wary of the old Cs associated with sharing: cooperatives, collectives and communal structures,” says Ted Talk star Rachel Botsman. “The words themselves are loaded with stigma … Perhaps we fear they will jeopardize our cherished personal freedoms of individuality, privacy and autonomy.”
There is an educational skew to the lone individualist too. Business schools equip people to be excellent operators, but graduate ambition hankers after leadership.
“ We are addicted to game-changing,” explains Michael Bhaskar in his book Curation, “and the idea that creation and creativity are intrinsic goods.”
While society needs the disruptive, game-changing leaders, it also needs people who refine, simplify, explain and support. Society needs curators as well as creators; operators as well as entrepreneurs; farmers as well as hunters. And great businesses need well-balanced leadership teams who embrace a range of skills.
It has always struck me as odd that while numerous successful businesses harness the power of community in their products and services – think of Uber, Airbnb and eBay – the same powerful processes aren’t applied to business itself. What would happen if the principles of collaborative culture – the same principles behind the phenomenal success of so many businesses – were applied to your top team?
My business partner Steffan Williams and I launched our new firm to start with the team. We’ll tackle the gap between your business’ productivity, progress and potential by building leadership capability throughout your organisation. Strategic communications and data-led change management are at the heart of our counsel, but we also draw insight and talent from the disciplines of public affairs, organisational psychology and behavioural economics. We’ll develop, mentor and train your colleagues for sustainable change. Your home team will have the refreshed culture and enhanced expertise it needs for success long after we’ve gone.
Perhaps this is the year to shake off the Leadership Myth. Reach out to the team already around you. Build a new one. Consider the evidence that collective intelligence and teamwork trumps individualism. Real business wisdom lies in a community of talents around you. There’s an exciting new way to lead – together.