GERALD BEPKO Commentary: Don't underestimate value of teamwork

December 12, 2005

Any area of human activity can be improved by good teamwork. Teamwork requires leadership, by both those designated as team leaders and team members alike. In sports, as in life, the most valuable player is often not the person who calls the plays.

Teamwork is explored in an interesting way in a 2002 book by management consultant Patrick Lencioni titled, "Five Dysfunctions of a Team." The book is getting renewed attention because of the interest of sports leaders. Seven NFL teams now use Lencioni's book, according to USA Today.

Whether in sports or in technology companies, which is Lencioni's field, one type of problem seems to recur. You have the ingredients to achieve more through a team effort, but one high-performing person is pulling in the wrong direction and impairing teamwork.

Lencioni addresses teamwork in a "leadership fable." His protagonist is Kathryn, a CEO of a startup technology company who is brought in by the board to increase performance.

At one point, in explaining a hard decision to drop a member of the executive team, Kathryn reveals to her team a lesson she learned many years earlier managing a department of financial analysts. One analyst (Fred) cranked out more and better reports and took on any assignment. But Fred drove other analysts crazy with his arrogance and lack of support of fellow employees.

Kathryn explained that when performance declined and other analysts complained, she was forced to confront the problem. Because Fred was her top performer and she couldn't yield to resentment toward Fred's skills, Kathryn didn't discipline or fire him. She promoted him.

Two weeks later, three of the seven analysts quit amid even greater declines in productivity and Kathryn's boss called her in to explain. She told him about Fred and his destructive influence. Kathryn's colleagues asked if the boss fired Fred.

No, the boss had fired her instead. It wasn't Fred's actions that caused the decline. It was her "tolerance of his behavior." She said, "They fired the right person."

Postscript: Fred resigned a few weeks later and productivity went up dramatically, even with three fewer analysts.

Coaches routinely confront these types of problems in the glare of publicity. Remember the No. 1-ranked 1988 University of Notre Dame football team on the eve of the big game against the University of Southern California in Los Angeles? Two star players, Ricky Waters and Tony Brooks, had a habit of being late to team events. The night before the big game, they were again late for a meal. Coach Lou Holtz concluded their disdain for team rules was impairing team morale, so he sent the two home and they watched the big game from the O'Hare airport.

It seems Holtz was right. Notre Dame won the game and later went on to beat West Virginia to win the national championship.

Today in the NFL, there is the Terrell Owens case. He is one of the best players in the NFL, but he has impaired teamwork within the Philadelphia Eagles by publicly criticizing teammates and setting a terrible example for younger players.

The assumption is that, over time, but not this year, the Eagles will play better without the suspended Owens. One person who may expect this is the successful Cincinnati Bengals' coach, Marvin Lewis, who has distributed 20 copies of the Lencioni book to team members. He calls dealing firmly with those who don't contribute to teamwork "addition by subtraction."

As the benefits of teamwork are better understood and measurable, conventional wisdom on leadership may be moving in a way that will help all people learn teamwork and inhibit team-impairing, egodriven excesses.

Bepko is IUPUI chancellor emeritus and Indiana University trustees' professor at IUPUI. His column appears monthly. He can be reached by e-mail at gbepko@ibj.com.
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