Among the most hackneyed leadership proverbs is this one found on a million plaques and bumper stickers: "There is no i in teamwork." While true enough in terms of spelling, the trite little phrase fails at the point of nuance. If no one on the team is self-aware and self-confident, the whole will be less than the sum of the parts. Every member of every team is an I, a capital I, with skills, capabilities and talents unique to themselves. It is poor leadership indeed that hopes to foster teamwork at the expense of the individual pursuit of personal excellence.
There may be no i in teamwork, but there is an I in "Inspire. There are I's in "I will strive to be my best, to achieve at my highest possible level, hoping all the while to inspire my teammates to likewise do their best." There are lots of i's in that sentence.
Here are two important reasons that spelling team with I's is not all wrong, no matter what your second grade teacher taught you, and regardless of the generally recognized inerrancy of leadership plaques and bumper stickers.
I. If individuals inside a team are hammered into conformity, teamwork can degenerate into "team think" and the resulting loss of creativity can gut a team's effectiveness. There may be no i in teamwork. There is also no i in commune. That has never worked very well. "I have an idea" "I think we should..." "Let me try, I think I can..." are not the opposite of teamwork. They are the signs of a team big enough to let all the I's be themselves and still meld together to make all that individual ability work for the greater good. There is also an I in individual. It's is a sad team that cannot accept and celebrate the uniqueness of the individuals that make that team what it is.
II. There is nothing wrong and everything right about a team, the whole team, including the star, knowing who the star is. Six seconds to go in the game and a three-pointer is needed to win. One inbound pass, one shot and it has to be good. Everybody knows who needs to shoot including the designated shooter. "Can you make this shot? " the coach asks. "Yes, I can." That answer has an I in it and there is nothing wrong with that. Now, having said that, it is also true that the shooter cannot pass himself the ball. He needs the team. Yes. On the other hand, the team needs him to be him, not them.
What is the balance? What should it look like? This year I saw an excellent example of the blend of personal excellence and team consideration, in of all places Major League Baseball, a veritable ocean of unbridled ego. When the star first baseman for the Atlanta Braves, Freddy Freeman, suffered a broken wrist, it was a blow to the team. To cover first base the Braves obtained Matt Adams, a journeyman first baseman to fill in. The problem, the really good problem for the Braves was Adams played and hit better than Atlanta or St. Louis ever expected. He started pounding the ball, hitting home runs and playing excellent defense as well. Having said that, Freeman is still better than Adams. When Freeman returned everyone expected him to demand his position back. Now, what to do with Adams? And could there be any way to keep both those big bats in the lineup?
Freddy Freeman had an answer. He said let me play third base, where the Braves were not getting hitting. Can you play third base, the team asked? I played third base in high school, Freeman explained. I think I still can. I. I. I. For the good of the team. Freeman stepped away from his position for the good of the team. He came up with a creative solution for the good of the team. He also said, "I can do it." For the good of the team. As you can tell, I'm not a fan of leadership plaques. The problem with them is that the complexities of the team/individual tension cannot be reduced to a proverb. That's what "I" think.