Newsletter #495 – What Makes a Great Team?

Especially in the early years of his career, basketball star Michael Jordan was criticized because he dominated his team and often ignored the other players as he ran up points largely on his own. When his coach complained, apparently Jordan responded with this: “There may not be an I in team but there is in win.” In a new book by Mark DeRond, the author summarizes research about high performance in sports, business and other team relationships. The book, There Is an I in Team has relevance beyond athletic and business teams. Here are empirically-based highlights that you may find interesting.

  • A basketball team without superstars rarely makes it to the playoffs, let alone the finals. Winning is more likely when there are superstar team members.
  • Qualities that make team members gifted also make them wearisome as team members. Superstars are “extraordinarily focused” along with their unusual competence but this also leads to perfectionism, paranoia, discontent, big egos, impatience and irritating behaviors that make them difficult to work with.
  • Harmonious relationships actually can hurt team performance. Without internal competition teams may underperform. Competition weeds out inefficiency. More important than harmony is the ability to trust and rely on one another when there’s a common goal.
  • There is a key to effective teamwork: if each person is capable, give them something to care about more than themselves.
  • Likability is more important than competence in making someone a desirable team member. If a person is strongly disliked “it is almost irrelevant whether or not he or she is competent.”
  • Money matters. Payroll and performance are highly coordinated.
  • Superstitions, including “luck-producing” rituals, are not necessarily bad. They help reduce performance anxiety and “enhance focus and the chances of success.”
  • In selecting effective team members, a coach or team leader’s intuition often is a better predictor than objective measures.
  • Restlessness and discontent are the “single most distinguishing features of high performers.”  Despite their bravado, many superstars experience an “imposter syndrome,” mystified by their own success, feeling like a fraud, afraid they are not as good as everyone believes.

Much of this is both fascinating and controversial. Please leave a comment. Does anyone besides me sometimes experience the imposter syndrome?


  1. #3 speaks to the need of conflict in success. Often we are taught that all conflict is bad and we become uncomfortable with it. This directs us toward failure rather than success.

    Thanks for a great glimpse into workplace dynamics.


    1. Thanks Bill, especially for your comment about workplace dynamics. At least once a month I post something and wonder about its practical relevance. But I think we all learn from getting insights from fields that are other than our own — and teams cover almost everyone.


  2. There’s a lot of insight in this list. However, what is true in NBA basketball is not necessarily true across the board – in life or in sports. I have seen several professional baseball teams destroyed by importing “star players” who, though good, destroyed team dynamics and the winning-ness of their teams.

    In high school I was part of a volleyball team that wasn’t very gifted – but we did take the top spot in the end because we encouraged each other rather than tearing down any who made mistakes (as the other teams tended to do.) I think at this level we have a better example of “real life” than in professional sports of any kind.


    1. I appreciate your insights and experiences, Jenny. Of course the book I reviewed dealt with more teams than the NBA teams, but even there it is clear that star-power can undermine a team, especially if the star players are disliked and/or jerks. I think your volleyball team experience is replicated more than we think. I wonder how this applies to politics and political parties — or denominational groups?


  3. Some of these comments could relate very easily to dynamics in the church leadership as well. Big egos in any leadership position will cause much difficulty in staff relations – often the cause of why pastors resign and move on. #4 points to “effective teamwork” and #5 points to “likability vs competence”. I praise God for the opportunity to serve Him in a church setting where the staff function so well together – not that there isn’t conflict…there is – but because our purpose is to honor Him above all, conflicts are quickly resolved.
    Thanks for the article. I remember coaching basketball in high school and all the players thought they were “Mike” – some became too obnoxious and had to be benched. I pray that never happens to me.


    1. Pastor Stu, I appreciate your insights and application to churches and pastors. In a couple of weeks I plan to look at some of this. If you want a head start, try to track down Steve Saccone’s new book on leadership development in churches. Title is Protégé.


    1. Ruedi. Huge question? In sports it is wins. In business it seem to be sales and money. In students it probably is grades or a diploma. What is it in life or in churches? A distorted or fuzzy view of the end goal can leave us floundering and confused. But then, can’t we be successful even if we don’t have clear criteria? I think success is one of the most confusing and perhaps destructive words in our language.


      1. Gary, Yes, every professional field defines success in their own terms. That’s ok. But as Christians, we also have to define success in terms of how well we bring a radically counter-cultural “Love God, and your neighbor” into our professional context. I suggest that we are never free to ignore that definition. God’s challenge to us always trumps whatever challenges we may face professionally. Maybe it’s ok to be a success professionally while becoming known as an ambitious and selfish a–hole, but I doubt it. At least it’s not a direction I personally want to go in. I’d rather find a God-honoring way to to help others become successful and feel good about what they are accomplishing.

  4. There are so few times that Igive a “superstar” performance that I naturally feel like a “fraud” when it happens and that much of it was a result of luck.


  5. This hits home ” Restlessness and discontent are the “single most distinguishing features of high performers.” Despite their bravado, many superstars experience an “imposter syndrome,” mystified by their own success, feeling like a fraud, afraid they are not as good as everyone believes. ” While I have had “success” in c-c ministry, secretly I feel to be a failure and this may explain over-achievement.


    1. Xi They, I am grateful for your honesty here. I too connected with the restlessness and discontent ideas. In some ways these things motivate us to achieve. I wonder if any pioneers or explorers would have launched out if they were at ease and completely content. To be consistent with the way I started this reply, I should add that I also connect with your concluding sentence. I guess we are kindred spirits.


  6. So many of the measures of success and failure in our lives are false. Because of the human condition, we are restless whether we “succeed” or “fail.” What we think is so important in life now will be seen from a very different perspective when we pass on to eternal life.


    1. Great to hear from you Rosie. Think back on your days as a dean. From my work at the same school as you I see so many students (and faculty) striving to succeed so their resumes look better. But where does all of this count when we end the journey?


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