The 4 Types of Teams All Leaders Need to Understand

saw it last night: UConn’s Kemba Walker is the best college basketball
player in America. More than a star, he’s a sun around which the other
players orbit.

Two generations ago, Bill Bradley, similarly solar, led Princeton to
the NCAA’s Final Four; he was a prodigious scorer but also a promiscuous
passer, shovelling the ball to other (less talented) players, who
rebuffed his false modesty by passing it back. His pro career, though,
was different. The New York Knicks were a team of near-equals; four of
its five starters made the NBA’s hall of fame. Bradley himself scored,
on average, about half as many points as he did in college. Like UConn’s
Huskies, Bradley’s Tigers were a lead singer with a doo-wop chorus; his
Knicks were a quintet.

So which was the better team?

Judging by the motivational posters
you see on HR department walls, there are two kinds of teamwork. In
one, everybody holds hands in a circle. We’re in this together, they
seem to say. The handholders are often skydiving, but even a mile high
you can smell the campfire and hear the voices singing “Kumbaya.” The
other common poster shows someone reaching out to give someone a helping
hand-up a hill, across a gorge. In these pictures, the strong help the
weak; Indiana Jones races back into the temple to save the arthritic
old-timer and plucky girl with the twisted ankle before the roof falls
in. It’s the opposite of UConn’s hoopsters, where the team exists to
feed the best player.

Actually, there are four different kinds of teams, none of which has
anything to do with sentimentality. They’re organized in different ways;
they’re suited to different purposes; and if you understand the
taxonomy of teamwork you’ll be a better leader and a better player.

  • Problem solvers. One reason to team up is to crack a
    tough problem, because when it comes to banging against a wall, two
    heads are better than one, and seven or eight are better still. Juries
    are problem-solvers. So are teams of analysts. These teams need a clear
    goal–a problem and a deadline. They want diversity of sex, background,
    and cognition, and not just tokenism, as studies by Lynda Gratton of London Business School show. Some of the best, teams of virtuosos,
    can be cantankerous and quarrelsome. That’s why they need a galvanizing
    goal: without one, their very diversity may tear them apart. American
    World War II movies depict problem-solving teams: Iowa farm-boy, West
    Virginia miner, Brooklyn stick-ball player, and preppie musician call on
    their disparate skills to improvise a way to destroy the impregnable
    German pillbox.
  • Loyal followers. In British movies about the Second
    World War, the emphasis is on banding together to serve the charismatic
    leader. The greatest of those films was Laurence Olivier’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the young king summoned his knights and common soldiers once more into the breach, having earlier called them

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be ne’re so base.

(In Shakespeare’s text, “base” is “vile,” from villein,
meaning commoner.) A team of loyal followers needs not a problem but a
cause–someone or something worth putting yourself on the line for.
That’s not usually shareholder value, incidentally.

  • Ragtag bands of merry men. These teams exist
    outside an organization’s power structure and are often purposefully
    subversive of it. They may be true outlaws like Robin Hood and his
    Sherwood Forest buddies or Castro and his cadre in the Sierra Maestra
    mountains. In business, ragtag bands may be start-ups, some of which
    have it in for the establishment. (Remember Macintosh’s “1984″ Super Bowl commercial?) Sometimes they’re employees set up as the loyal opposition, like Lockheed’s Skunk Works
    and its imitators-special groups protected from hierarchs and budget
    hawks so as to disrupt the existing order from within. These teams
    usually have an official leader responsible for placating the
    authorities, but are highly democratic and improvisatory internally.
  • Protective cordons. Every good team protects its
    members, but some are designed specifically for the purpose. For the
    most part these aren’t high-performing teams; their purpose is
    protection, not production. At their worst, these teams obscure
    accountability, tolerate mediocre performance, and cover up each other’s
    sins. That happens when bureaucratic companies want to hide from
    customers, for example. In these teams, everyone’s responsible, so no
    one’s responsible. That’s not always a bad thing. At their best, these
    teams protect decent people so from capricious or arbitrary bosses.
    “They can’t fire all of us” is their motto– the corporate version of “I’m Spartacus.”

A smart leader suits the team to the task and vice versa. That’s not
easy. In my experience, most organizations have teams of all four kinds,
but one style dominates. (If your organization has a lot of protective
teams, you should ask why.)  I don’t think individual teams change much.
Outlaws don’t come indoors, put on cardigans, and sip sherry;
protectors don’t suddenly congregate in the team room, open their
laptops, and start problem-solving. Which type of team is better? That
depends on the job.

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