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Why Successful Teams Fail

We all grew up hearing the Aesop tale of the Tortoise and the Hare. Some have misguidedly assessed that the moral of that story was “slow and steady wins the race.” However, if you look a little deeper, the true moral of that story was how over-confidence ultimately leads to peril. From the boardroom to the political pulpit; from the courtroom to the football field, we all have experienced stories of how seemingly “unbeatable” teams suddenly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In dismay, we seem to utter, but they were “too big to fail;” “too great to lose.” We often pause, stunned, and ask ourselves “How could this have happened?” The answer to this question at the end of the day is quite simple. We have all seen, time and time again, how the mighty have fallen victims to perhaps the greatest sin of all, the sin of hubris.

Hubris. That funny little word, with its origins rooting back to Greek mythology; defined by Merriam-Webster as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.” Jim Collins explains in his book How the Mighty Fall, (2009) “when the rhetoric of success replaces penetrating understanding and insight, decline will very likely follow.” In our organizations, all teams, but especially successful teams, are remarkably vulnerable to excessive pride. And as the proverb goes, pride cometh before the fall.

Here is the key to mitigating the harmful effects of hubris: Encouraging Humility.

While not without controversy, the New England Patriots football team has been seen as one of the greatest in the league. And at the helm, head coach- Bill Belichick, has been referred to by many as the GOAT, the greatest of all time. With all their “W’s” at conferences and super bowls matches, trophies and diamond-studded rings, it is easy to see how the team could fall prey to the grips of hubris. How does Belichick counteract this and continue to win games? Encouraging…nay, insisting on humility. This can be succinctly summed up in one of his most famous leadership quotes “Do your job!” Despite his team being filled with players who are touted to the highest by fans and media alike, inundated with accolades and praise, Belichick does not allow for egos to get in the way of winning the game. No player is too good to put in the work, and all are required to do…his…job. So too, should leaders of successful teams.

Here are some quick tips on how to encourage humility and decrease the risk of hubris on your team:

  • Recruiting someone to play the Devil’s Advocate. Lambasting dissenters is not going to lead good teams on the path to greater success. Conflict is healthy for any successful team (click here to read more about the benefits of conflict), and should be encouraged. The quickest way to abolish groupthink is to have someone (or multiple someones) on the team willing to speak up in times of need. If everyone is too busy patting each other on the back, you run the risk of not seeing a storm brewing in front of you.

  • Concentrating on Solutions. Less emphasis should be put on who is responsible for the success of the team, but rather on how the team was able to reach that success. And vice versa when it comes to failure. When something goes wrong, is there a lot of finger pointing on the team, and is the first response, “Who is responsible?” John Baldoni (How to Recognize (and Cure) Your Own Hubris) suggests that this may be a sign that there is an overemphasis on accountability at the expense of problem-solving.

  • Focus on Collective Outcomes. In Patrick Lencioni’s, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the fifth dysfunction happens when “the pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.” A team that focuses on collective results aligns the goals of the individual team members towards the larger picture, and minimizes inflated egos that go along with these individual “wins.”

While confidence is a key to success, arrogance is a dangerous path to failure. Over self-confidence is somewhat like a virus that can strike at almost any time, but the best vaccine to hubris is humility. In fact, in the Leader’s Legacy, Kouzes and Posner (2006), describe that “humility and grace make up the antidote to the poison of excessive pride.”

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