Great People Are Overrated (Part II)

I'm pleased, although not surprised, by the incredible wave of reactions to and comments about my post, "Great People Are Overrated." (I'm also not surprised by the vitriol and personal nature of some of the barbs aimed at me. That seems to go with the territory whenever you question an article of faith among the web startup crowd.)

My guess is that the post touched a nerve because it touched on one of the great dividing lines in our business culture today. As members of an economy, a society, and a collection of companies, all of us are engaged in a conversation (sometimes explicit, mainly implicit) about what makes the world go 'round — individual brilliance or group genius, self-possessed superstars or well-rounded teams.

This is not a strictly either-or choice, of course. Even the best groups have stars, and not all stars find it hard to work well with others. But there remains the question of balance, priorities, even business mythology. If we're building a company, what sorts of people do we want to recruit? If we're paying our people, what sorts of contributions and behaviors do we wish to reward? If we're thinking about our country and society, what kind of outcomes are we comfortable with, in terms of wealth and income distribution? Ultimately, are we fielding a team, or assembling a collection of individuals?

As I said in my original post, the great sweep of business and innovation has increased the power of the individual and the small team over the lumbering herd. The "smart" do, in fact, take from the "strong." But like so much of what we do in America's startup culture, I worry that we are taking this basic insight to crazy excess, making the claim that one superstar engineer is literally more valuable more than one hundred good engineers (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) or worth more than 200 good engineers (Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen). Or, as one of the commenters on my post suggested, one Shakespeare is worth more than 100 Bill Taylors.

On that last point I would certainly not disagree. But on the broader point, I think we're in for a major correction. It's worth noting that the debate over this post takes place during IBM's centennial celebration. Now, I'm excited by the rise of Facebook, the IPO of LinkedIn, and all the latest successes from the startup world. It's great stuff. But for IBM to celebrate its 100th anniversary as a company, to remain, despite wave after wave of disruptive technological change, as a world-shaping force for solving big problems and making a big difference — that's truly something to admire. I wonder where Groupon and LinkedIn will be a hundred years from now.

IBM has stayed in the game for a century because it understands that groups are as important as individuals, that character counts along with credentials. In Mavericks at Work, Polly LaBarre and I wrote about Extreme Blue, an IBM initiative to make the company more attractive to young hotshots that might otherwise gravitate to companies like Facebook and Google. But from the moment Extreme Bluers report for duty, they get immersed in a system that emphasizes group cohesion over me-first individual achievement.

IBM even produced a manual of sorts, called Staying Extreme, that describes the way talented young people do their best work. "To be clear," it warns, "when you leave Extreme Blue and join another group at IBM (or any other company for that matter), we will be watching. And if we find out that you are making the program look like we are producing a bunch of arrogant wannabes, we will forget we ever knew you. Be ambitious. Be a leader. But do not belittle others in pursuit of your ambition."

Several years ago, at the height of the last War for Talent, Malcolm Gladwell offered his version of this same corrective. In an essay called "The Talent Myth," the New Yorker writer looked at business's obsession with hiring the best and the brightest, and raised a bright red flag. The problem with this star-studded approach, he said, is the "assumption that an organization's intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. [Some companies] believe in stars, because they don't believe in systems. In a way, that's understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don't write great novels, and a committee didn't come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don't just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star."

The star of Gladwell's assault on the star system was Enron, a company that famously populated itself with the brightest lights of the most elite institutions, and then went down in flames. "The reasons for [Enron's] collapse are complex, needless to say," Gladwell concluded. "But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?"

It was the last question by Gladwell that inspired the title of my original post. The question he raised several years ago has come back with such a vengeance today. There is more to long-term performance than the excellence of your individual players. Great companies, great organizations of all kinds, are as much about character as credentials, about how everyone works together as well as how each person does his or her work. Winning teams are more than just a collection of talented individuals.

As I said in my original essay, this is not an argument for settling for mediocrity. But it is a plea for some sense of proportion. And in a world of endless booms and busts, bubbles and popped bubbles, Wars for Talent and extended periods of unemployment, proportion is not such a bad thing.

Oh, and to those of you (and there are many) who responded to my original post with such rancor and derision: if you conduct yourself at work the same way you conduct yourself in these online comments, you're kind of making my point. Maybe you should embrace a sense of proportion as well.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

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3 Comments

  • Ben Lichtenwalner

    Excellent points, Bill. I see two key reasons for this overemphasis of individual stars vs. team building:

    1. Short-Sighted Prioritization: Modern businesses, especially early stage and public companies, focus almost solely on short-term gains. Whether it is IPO valuation or shareholder pressure for quarterly returns, too many organizations trade off sustainable success for immediate profit. The emphasis of star employees over team building supports this misdirection. You're right, IBM survived 100 years, at least in part, because they understand this and focus more long-term. 
    2. Hero Worship: Our society loves the hero story. Many executives want to be the hero, without investing the effort. Toxic leaders seek the fame and fortune without the blood, sweat and tears. It's much easier to hire a "star" and place the load on them, than to invest your time and energy into building a team. Therefore, if an executive can hire a star performer and throw them into the fire, it's less work for the executive.

    Thanks for sharing Bill.

  • Gabriel Magana

    If you now say you argue for proportion, then say it in your headline.  I understand the need to generate clicks (I'm here, commenting on your story, right?), but the headline says clearly that "great people are overrated," which says nothing about proportion.

    I think people's behavior in response to your story is a response to the title.

    There's no need to take cover under Gladwell, either. The fact that no mention was made of Gladwell in your original article means he was not relevant to your argument before, why is he now that you need a defense to your argument? Good arguments don't need a big name to defend them.

    And I don't see how people being rude to you makes your point. Literature abounds about how people act differently online than in person.

    Anyway, I think your article was a mistake, and your title was colossally wrong, the goal seemed to be to generate clicks... Which I guess it did, but you probably were not after angry clicks. Publishing your previous story was a rare mistake for FastCompany.

  • greg

    Bill

    Great articles, kudos for extending Malcolm Gladwell's work into our assumption that "superstars" are simply better without examining the context or environment.  It would seem that, historically, surrounding a "superstar" with a small team of high-quality talent, specialists, or role players has been very successful (see: Jordan's Bulls, Messi's Barca Squad, Job's Apple team, etc.).