Why do ego-less teams win?
Last year Leicester City Football Club won the Premier League.The chances of that happening were 5000:1.The same odds were given to Justin Bieber becoming president of the US. And oh boy, do we wish Justin had pulled that one off.
What happened at Leicester City was not the stars aligning — it was not down to magic, nor was it a fluke. But, what happened was very, very rare.
The rarest team to form is the selfless team. It is also the most potent. When a team comes together and makes the decision that all that matters is the central purpose — when every action, breath and thought goes into making that happen, and everyone is aligned — then that team can achieve the impossible.
It can beat the odds. It can punch way above its weight. Because egos have had to leave the team for the team to be able to play at its absolute maximum.
In his book Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson, one of the most successful basketball coaches ever, shared the findings from another book. It’s called Tribal Leadership, by management consultants Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright. They had articulated the 5 stages of tribal development. And, although teams are not tribes as such, the insights are valuable because they share characteristics and develop along the same lines.
Stage 1, Shared by most street gangs and characterised by despair, hostility and the collective belief that ‘life sucks’.
Stage 2, Filled primarily with apathetic people, who are passively antagonistic and perceive themselves as victims, with the mindset that ‘my life sucks’. (Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip.)
Stage 3, Focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto ‘I’m great (and you’re not)’. According to the authors, people in organisations at this stage have to win, and for them, winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors’.
Stage 4, Dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that ‘we’re great (and they’re not)’. This kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.
Stage 5, A rare stage characterised by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that ‘life is great’.
And I would argue that there is a sixth stage.
Stage 6, An even rarer stage. Where the purpose of the tribe/team is far greater than any individual. The selfless team allows the team to be the most efficient because every action has the team at heart. Because the ego has left the team.
Most teams have their egos. The general rule is ‘the bigger the talent, the bigger the ego’. That is why the team with the most money doesn’t always win. Because superstars put themselves before the team. Their ego is holding them and their team back.
A selfless team forms rarely, but the results are so incredible, it is a genuine surprise that it doesn’t occur more often.
Ego is such a strong opponent.
The conditions have to be right for the selfless team to form: the timing right, the purpose so inspiring and so clear, and the team members willing to listen to their leader and have 100% faith in them.
But when that magical, selfless team forms, the team puts the team first. Individual egos are no longer as important as the team. Teams win because everyone in the team puts themselves second to the team.The pursuit of the team’s goals is the only thing that matters. Each member of the team has understood the huge sacrifice that each member is making on each other’s behalf.
Once this optimum state is reached, it is by far the most potent. Not just in what it can achieve in terms of results, but the feeling you get from being part of it. The emotional state of being part of this team is where you are most alive, most innovative and most fulfilled as a human being. This team, even with less talented individuals, can beat a team with superstars that is not really a team.
So everyone reading this knows that Leicester stopped winning this season, which even led them to sack their manager. But how do you go from champions to favourites for relegation?
Well, very simply, the ego came back.
Some players believed they were more important than others; their agents made sure they had better contracts; and they stopped believing in their manager because they thought they knew better. The team no longer put the team first. So they lost their edge. Their edge wasn’t talent. It was that they worked for each other. They were greater than the sum of their parts.
To finish, I want to tell you one last story. I heard it on the radio. It was from a World-Cup-winning rugby team player. I missed the introduction, so I never caught his name. He was asked if his biggest achievement was winning the World Cup medal. And he said ‘no’. He said his biggest achievement was in the tunnel before the game, when everyone looked at each other. They all knew how hard each other had worked to get there, how much they had grown as people together and they had all, to a man, put the team before themselves. They were, in that moment, a team. And without words, they nodded to each other to say a thank you.
And teams, when they put each other first, win.
“Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of — that’s the metric to measure yourself against…Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.”
—Ryan Holiday, The Ego is the Enemy
This is an excerpt from The Side Project.