There is something about teams that expands our experience of being human. Teams extend our wings, in practical, pragmatic, and measurable ways. And when done right, this experience of teams makes all of us—those in Asia, Africa, Europe, or North America, rich or poor—feel more humane, more competitive, and more contributory to a shared near-future than ever before in our personal or family lives. Why is this?
In the military, we call this achievement from teams “shared actionable understanding” or the shared trust, vision, and coherence of all members of a team. In this book we explore many different kinds of teams, from corporate teams to Navy SEALs to the Boston Celtics. And in each case, we derive the essential oils that bring a smooth set of actions and results to teams.
Why is this smoothness important?
And why does this extension of what is human really matter to us?
Why, for example, does soccer become the most important and popular world game?
We suggest it has to do with the certain magical facelessness of an entire team effort evident in each soccer game, no matter what the level of play or what nation it is played in. In contrast, “solo” performing teams—that is, teams like those based on an autocratic “first face” such as Lance Armstrong’s recently denuded Tour de France cyclist teams—age faster in our appreciation and memory.
Why is this? It will take this full book to answer by explaining this miracle of social history.
Let’s take this issue of team facelessness from the opposite point of view. Why do the select few in basketball, the super-charged superheroes of the National Basketball Association (NBA)—folks as iconic as Kobe Bryant and King LeBron James—lose some of their appeal and their approachability as they become larger than life? We loved them in college or high school, but afterward, we view some with distance and dislike. These men mean less to many of us than our own teammates over time. They might become as famous globally as a Charlie Chaplin, but the love they are granted is shorter lived as others replace them when they retire.
So what is the special sauce that keeps team fame as individuals wane?
As their special 1 in 10 million skills become even more exceptional, more superhuman, some basketball stars have fallen beyond our daily sense of achievable joys and hopes. These basketball demigods shrink like aged photos before our eyes in time. In this way, they become like so many of our number one best sellers in music and pop art—kings for a day, not a decade. Of course, there are loved exceptions such as the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs, which are loved for a long time by millions.
This book will examine more closely these more commonplace players for the special ingredients we will call team coherence and team integrity.
Why is this pattern discernible in so many corporate and sports settings as well? There are many firms where the chief executive officer (CEO), who appeared to be respected by all, is hated upon after only a few months of departure from the first. In contrast, team-based CEOs can seem built to last; they keep our respect over decades. Could it be, for example, how they handle their tales of the team?
And why might business leaders good at using the metaphors of teams excel well beyond the norm?
You will not find the answer if you think only like those such as Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx. Freud and Marx were clearly two of the three greatest thinkers at the apex of industrialism in the nineteenth century, the third being Charles Darwin. But they all overlooked something very important.
For more than 100 years now, these two gifted thinkers helped create a feeling of determinism to individual lives and helped shape our overall understanding about industrial competition and personal growth. They created the folktales of industrialism that still feed so many of our popular assumptions about work and play.
And yet both Marx and Freud were profoundly uninterested in the establishment, appeal, and satisfaction found in teams.
Freud believed all human lives boil down to ego; the animal instincts he called the id; and civilization’s call, which he termed the superego. The id, ego, and superego were, to Freud, the three fuels that fed human motivation, human understanding, and human ambition. Freud wrote more than 20 beautifully argued books indicating why he believed these engines within the self predetermined our successes and our failures, our families, and our friendships.
Yet he was profoundly inept when it came to team formation, the wisdom in teams, and how to achieve results in a swift and severe world of circumstance and hardship.
It would be more generous to say, as many intellectual historians before me, that in the age of Freud, Marx, and Darwin—and nearly a hundred years after them—the importance of teams was not fully recognized and was more often ignored as they searched for their secret sauce in human motivation and fears.
There is a profound need for acceptance in the human drama, and teams provide the most accessible platform for its exploration and maturation.
Although elites like Freud, Marx, and Darwin from the past century often outlined elaborate paths of self-discovery, reversal, and triumph in a modern lifetime, my point here is grander in its simplicity: teams abound and always will. They are as much a part of human aspiration as seeking three meals a day.
The missing links in Freud are now more obvious. Those in Marx and Darwin are a bit more hidden and more difficult to unearth. Marx, for example, in his brilliant essays, such as “Wage, Labor and Capital,” was equally wrong when it came to teams. He argues that owners are not interested in anything deep down but the means of production.
Marx essentially argued that only if you have the means of production could you enjoy success. And every day, teams prove this narrow and uninteresting.
Marx believed that owners exploited the labor power of individuals in order to control more of the means of production. It never crossed Marx’s mind, or pen, that many on teams would pursue raising the performance of all players, raising, as we note in business, “the boats of all in the marketplace” so as to benefit our standing and our selves. This rising of aspiration and expectation in team play abounds everywhere, from sports to firms to the military—as the tales in this book show. It is very different than the imperatives of a labor union or the general assumptions Marx embedded in the proletariat. In teams, we extend beyond class, economics, and many related forms of determinism. How you play matters much more than where you come from in teams!
What is hilariously clear now about these predominant nineteenth-century views of social determinism is how ignorant Marx and Freud became—as all of their contorted brethren since—regarding the common magic of teams.
This book, then, is designed to remind us of what many organizations that thrive share—from churches and mosques to sports clubs to corporate units to special forces to large military organizations: namely, the power, the logic, and the smart inclusiveness of teams.
A Dynamic Example
My uncles Mike and Steve first told me about the 1939 Ukraine soccer team called Dynamo over a Thanksgiving dinner outside in our shared backyard.
Steve was married to my lovely Ukrainian Aunt Anna, and Mike was the great family storyteller, a bare-knuckled boxer when he first came to Newark from Poland, and one known to exaggerate for effect.
So I listened to this tall tale of a great football team’s astonishing results against the invading Nazi with both fascination and polite suspicion.
It turned out to be true, forming in my early mind a great example of the simple nobility in teams and how society invests so much in them over time.
Hitler had already invaded our homeland in 1939. And by June 1941, he was still able to astonish and confound with a fierce focus not understood by the average European in power.
In fact, in the few short months of this tale, Hitler made his greatest military gains in all of World War II, conquering Ukraine, his largest single country to take in a few bloodstained months.
When the capital city goes, the people’s pride and spirit often begins to dissolve. A people’s collective identity frays and severely fractures when their capital falls. Conquerors since Alexander know this instinctively.
By June 1941, Kiev was circled, assaulted, and completely overrun. Family members describe it as a shell of its former self, hollowed in a way reflected by the great works of the time. Key members of the city’s defenders were captured, tortured, or incarcerated—including each of the members of the famous 1939 Dynamo Kiev football team, which some argue was the best squad of well-equipped men in Europe before the war.
The team was shattered, hungry, and scattered.
Three Features in Exceptional Teams
There was a quiet Ukrainian bakery owner who made all the difference in the world. He recognized the once-charismatic goalkeeper of the Dynamo squad, as he wandered, head down, disheveled, and in disarray one day along the lonely streets of his motherland’s capital.
The baker offered Trusevich, the goalkeeper, a job and some shelter. And soon enough, other teammates were invited in. As they made bread for the Nazis, they were fed bread both as workers in the bakery and as guys who let off steam at the end of the day by playing what they loved to play—European football, Soccer with a capital S.
After Kiev had been occupied for a few months, a Nazi strongman had a brilliantly stupid idea: Why not set up some matches between the locals and the occupiers as a way to entertain and get everyone’s minds off the tension and the pain?
A series of very public matches were arranged, and each time the tired underdogs, because of their skill and something deeper, won—humiliating the Nazi team. There was a terrifying vividness to each score, as something larger than pride of ownership at stake, evident to both those in the stands and those on the restless streets of Ukraine.
Andy Dougan retold this story in his recent book Dynamo. He reminds us how football has the power to galvanize nations. As alert citizens, we saw this again in the summer of 2012 as the world witnessed the Poland versus Russia world football game. We recall it in the very famous set of games that helped Nelson Mandela bring South Africa back to life. The pattern goes back to ancient Olympics in Greece and the near East.
Dougan notes, in extended passages, how games express political will and social yearning through large tangible amounts of symbol and competitive longing.
But what Dougan does not underline, sufficiently in my mind at least, is the recurrent, commonplace, and extraordinary power we find in teams. He focuses on the games and the drama of the games, not the meaning of teams. He makes these players special, when, in fact, they became famous and mattered to so many because what they did was in all of us.
And that is what matters about teams.
About Eminent Men
What matters about teams is how commonplace the feelings about them are. Underdogs can win. The downtrodden can rise. And at times, even the most brutal opponents can lose.
Let’s explore this cluster of feelings in humans as constituting a magic in teams. I use the word magic quite deliberately, in a fashion used by anthropologists and when courts of many nations find themselves investigating motives deeper than ordinary socioeconomics.
This need for us to believe in a near-future both more just and more available is what sustains us, and it is what I mean by making us more human and what I mean about how teamwork extends our wings.
For those of you who know the story, the ending cannot remain in triumph.
Even when the games were being refereed by SS officers, the Dynamo spirit won again and again; by the end of 1941, they had become a living allegory of both resistance and the ordinary.
And here is my point deeper than ordinary psychology and more extraordinary than ordinary Darwinian animal behaviors. Bravery is a complex thing, and the voice and velocity of triumph can be stopped short, as evidenced by the Nazis who came to the bakery and slaughtered like pigs select team players. We also saw this coming all along, but never did we need to stop short—the team had its destiny, and it was a new kind of winning.
What my family remembers is the rightness in their victory, and many uncles and Eastern European aunts spoke with personal pride about each of the players. I write this now so that future members of my extended family can find ways to remember this tale of the Dynamo as well. In teams we mature, and in teams, we grow.
Today, I know enough to call this winning without weapons.
I dedicate this book to those who know how important this remains in a world of 7 billion souls.
Winning without Weapons: Summary
- Teamwork expands our wings and allows for “shared actionable understanding.”
- Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s idea of individual determinism lacks of profound satisfaction achieved when part of a team.
- The Kiev 1941 Dynamo soccer team is an example of how teamwork has the power to galvanize nations.
- Even “underdog” teams have the ability to win through commonplace and extraordinary shared power.