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There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’


We’ve all heard the axiom before. Usually it’s in the context of reminding someone they are too focused on their own interests and not focused enough on the team. Sometimes it’s declared as a preemptive strike against the fear of lack of compliance to the agenda or team’s mission. Sometimes, it’s ensuring that the “cowboys” are reeled in before there’s too much damage. And while I will never promote anarchy or rebellious behavior in teams and organizations, I will always stand up for the underdog who is being marginalized or who cannot find their own voice (yet). I will also make a case for individualism on teams.

Some leaders would ask each individual to lose (at least part of) their identity to become part of the collective. These leaders remind me of the Borg from Star Trek: “Resistance is futile,” as any and all Borg collectives will recite when taking over an individual. Read this aloud in the best Symbiont-Android voice you can muster: “There – is – no – I – in – team.”

As leaders, we say we value diversity. It’s the “right” thing to say, but are our actions congruent with the words?

As leaders, we say we want our people highly engaged and motivated, both personally and professionally. We see people as leaders, but can we maintain the paradox of personal and professional?

As leaders we say we want teams that work well with each another. I think what we’re really striving for is to have individuals – a bunch of “I’s” – working together well as a team.

Teams are a mixture, a combination of unique individuals with individualistic attributes. The most effective and respected leaders I’ve worked with hold this one ability among many others: They acknowledge, admire and promote each team member’s unique talents and gifts while working to create a symphony of intelligence on the team. They see and optimize all of the “I’s” on the team to create a synergistic, more powerful “we” of a team.

I need to brag for a second; I am fortunate enough to be part of such a team at Emergent. They each might tell you it’s because we’re all leaders, but I think it’s because we’ve all worked on ourselves as individuals in addition to having a deep desire to succeed together and do more with others than any one of us could do alone.

And so back to the content of this blog:

I’m not suggesting embracing and celebrating individualism on teams purely from a human-case basis. It’s simply the “right thing to do”; it also makes business and performance sense.

In Gallop’s book, “First Break All The Rules,” one of the foundational attributes that differentiates excellent leaders from average leaders is the ability to treat individuals as individuals. “Excellent” leader is a qualifier backed up by performance metrics. These leaders who embraced individualism AND created a culture of team outperformed teams that were ruled by leaders who were average: focused on identical practices and application of rules and policy identically resulting in what feels like less flexibility with people’s preferences and needs. No example of the “Excellent leader” broke policy or compliance guidelines, yet they were highly creative in meeting people at their needs while optimizing their performance.

Culture is an underlying component in making teams highly functional while embracing the individual’s needs. In his book “Culture Code,” author Daniel Coyle shares several essential principles of culture. Coyle suggests that for cultures to thrive and outperform their competition, reach and beat their objectives, and “win” whatever it is they are aiming for, individuals must feel a true belonging on the team and in the culture. He then suggests that the way the individuals interact becomes the synergy.

We presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance in the same way we presume two plus two will combine to produce four. …We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.
Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

As a leader, how are you embracing every individual on your team? Are you a cookie cutter leader or are you a virtuoso-leader – conducting a symphony of talents?


As a 2018 alumni of LeadFORWARD, Emergent’s year-long leadership program, I had the honor and pleasure of working on my symphony without sacrificing my solos. If you want to learn more about LeadFORWARD and other leadership and team opportunities for you and your organization, please reach out to me!

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1 Comment

  1. Newell on May 1, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    Nicely done Bill!

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