Is Teamwork overrated? Abe Lincoln didn't think so.

The recent movie "
Lincoln" is not only an entertaining film, it's a great study on the value of Teamwork. There are few management topics which have attracted more attention in recent years than the concept of Teams in the Workplace. There are countless books, seminars, and training sessions devoted to team building, and the prevailing sentiment among modern theorists is that organizations can achieve more through teamwork than without. But is the concept of a group of individuals combining their talents, ideas, and resources to work towards a common organizational goal little more than a modern business fad with little, if any, real relevance to actual company success?

Many business and organizational experts have looked at this very question. J. Richard Hackman of Harvard University states,

I have no question that when you have a team the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary, a collective creation of previously unimagined quality or beauty. But don’t count on it”.

Why would an organizational psychologist, who would presumably have tremendous insight on the value of teamwork, be so pessimistic on the ability of teams to achieve their goals? To better understand those conditions and concepts which can make a team successful, it can be beneficial to look beyond the often over-analyzed world of business and organizational theory and examine a real-life example of effective team building from an historical perspective.

In the mid-nineteenth century this country faced it’s most daunting challenge for survival since the revolution for independence. By early 1860 nine states had seceded from the union and the country was on the brink of civil war. The nation had just completed a long and contentious presidential election in which some of the best and brightest political minds in the country had vied for the highest office. Yet the winner was not an established or renowned government figure, but rather a country lawyer of limited success who had virtually no experience in organizations or teambuilding.

To many, the election of Abraham Lincoln surely signaled the end of the republic. It was no longer a question of whether the nation would survive, but what pieces would be left. His rivals for the nomination and presidency, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, had lost to a man they considered their inferior in nearly every way. Yet, even while they were in their “deep abyss of disappointment”, plans were being made to include them in one of the greatest team efforts of history.

While many historians credit the determination of Lincoln for the success of his presidency, and surely it would not have succeeded without him, also emphasized should be the governing team that he assembled and the deftness with which he forged that team and pointed it towards its goal. Lincoln intrinsically understood Dr. John Maxwell’s concept of “leading down” and that “having the right people on the team and putting them in the right places” will help to ensure team success. Lincoln didn’t select team members from his group of friends that he knew and liked, but rather chose for his team rivals from both inside and outside his political party, placing them each in a position to make maximum use of their talents and abilities.

Today we know the outcome of Lincoln’s decisions and that his leadership saved the union. But taken in the context of current events of the time, when the very survival of the country was anything but certain, his decisions and selections of team members were not only controversial, some considered them disastrous. Withstanding criticism, Lincoln appointed only those that he knew would add value to the team and, most importantly, he infused the team members with his vision for the country and the mission that they had before them. This is one of the tenets of teambuilding, and a good leader understands that the teams potential for success is determined by those closest to him. Despite the team members varied motivations and interests, a team can achieve when the leader builds a common vision for the good of all. Leadership authors Kouzes and Posner state that “
a vision is inclusive of the constituents aspirations; it’s an ideal and unique image of the future for the common good”. Suffice to say that Lincoln understood a very simple concept of teambuilding that often eludes even renowned scholars today; that the right people put in the right positions for the right reasons, can become an effective team and can achieve something extraordinary.

Why is this example of historical teambuilding important and how do we apply it in the context of Professor Hackman’s theory on the value of teams? First, it is important to remember that Lincoln had no managerial or organizational training when he assembled his team. He did not have the benefit of leadership seminars, how-to books, or management experts guiding him along the way. In terms of experimental learning, his efforts were the biologically clean “control group” in contrast to today’s academically driven efforts at organizational teambuilding. Yet, despite the enormously high risks at hand, and facing such dire prospects of failure that few in our country have ever faced, Lincoln succeeded by following the simple rules of teambuilding that he felt confident would bring success.

This does not disprove Professor Hackman’s theory that most teams will fail to achieve their goals, but rather can serve as an answer to his premise which is both simple and effective. Teams can fail; and teams which are not set up for the right reasons, at the right time and with the right people, almost certainly will fail. Professor Hackman himself reinforces this postulate when he states, “if the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are slim that the team will do a good job”. Not unlike Abraham Lincoln, as law enforcement leaders we would do well to practice that lesson.