One of my weekly “must-reads” includes the Monday Morning Memo from the “Wizard of Ads” marketing guru Roy H. Williams. His weekly thoughts offer insight into the world of advertising and the human condition. Often illuminating, the Wizard delves into the more qualitative world of the psyche (and relationship marketing) rather than the data-driven quantitative marketing formats that tend to dominate mass-marketers and require a greater working knowledge of excel than I can to know. Both methods offer a version of “truth” for those seeking to communicate their message and meet their sales goals.
Today, the Wizard offered up a challenge to the concept of teamwork declaring it, with a certain level of understatement, “highly overrated.” This concept focuses on the nature of the creative person, the artist, as the driver of business, communication, and human development. Williams argues that “every bureaucracy begins as a well intentioned committee.” In reading today, I thought about how this concept engages in the cooperative model. Cooperate literally means “work together” and quite often that means collective action, collective decision making, and, yes, committees and teams.
At heart of this discussion lies the tension between individual action and community needs. Williams argues that is the allure of tribalism, but I see it more as a necessity of community survival. Subscribing to the “Great Man” theory of community that Williams appears to do ignores a lot of reality. Great Men rarely become “great” without a lot of help. Even the individuals that he mentions as “tribal leaders” only managed to attain those roles through the collective action of a larger community–often it is because people are acting on their own interests that have little to do with the goals of the “great man”.
So perhaps the real question isn’t about teamwork vs. individual action, but about the role of leadership in organizations. In the cooperative model, we value self-help and self-responsibility but temper those individualistic ideals with the values of solidarity, equity, equality, and democracy. This enhances the community (or the tribe) while also helping to create leadership responsible to the stakeholders (both the members of the cooperative and the larger community). This allows the expression of individual creativity (and allows people to be creative by removing barriers that the title “leadership” imposes) yet may also act as a brake on the more destructive aspects of personality cults.
Yes, poorly managed committees and teams can be incredibly oppressive to the individual and cooperative spirit along with being a massive waste of time and money. However, committees and teams focused and trained in creative expression and communication can create a synergy of those same individual creative forces that can truly create sums bigger than the whole. It is a temptation to seek the isolation of the ego that softly coos to us “how can I soar like an eagle when I am weighed down by turkeys”, but ideas only go into the ether without committed people ready to implement them. To make a vision become more than a dream requires buy-in and support and that either means finding enough people who think exactly the same way or forming a consensus.
The role of a leader in a cooperative should be to help people dream and express their vision while creating a culture of a learning organization so that the competing visions work together instead of against one another. “Leaders” don’t create mass movements. Mass movements create leaders and those leaders change depending on the needs of the movement.