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It’s Team Biden, not Biden…

So America has a new president, and wherever I look, I see news about the new administration’s plans and programmes.

The Biden immigration plan. The Biden climate policy. The Biden antitrust approach. The Biden anti-COVID programme. The Biden economic stimulus.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? The word BIDEN!

For some reason we humans just love to fixate on individuals, not issues – and not teams. Everything is somehow couched as being the work of the person fronting or spearheading the initiative, as though nothing else matters.

In America in the past we have had, for example, Obamacare. We have had the Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have had the Clinton foreign policy and the Reagan economic doctrine. Seriously, people? It’s all about one name, one person, one brain? The media are generally the worst culprits, personalising everything done by an administration, attributing it all to an individual name and personality.

Let me say it again: for any collective achievement of note, it’s almost never an individual, it’s almost always a team that pulls it off. No matter how excellent the leader. In fact, the leader’s excellence lies in selecting and guiding an excellent team – and generally staying out of its way!

I’ve written about this here many a time. Great individuals matter, but mostly in the context of great teams. The great individual’s best work most often comes when working for long periods with great networks of coworkers and collaborators. There is much research and evidence to back this up. Professor Adam Grant has told us: individual talent really does matter, but it often matters most in the context of a team. A great individual needs to work with other outstanding people. Then, when the group practices together and learns each member’s nuances and peculiarities, performance really does improve.

In fact, when there is too much attention and emphasis given to an individual, the result will be terrible! Donald Trump, anyone? Now there was a case where everything was pretty much being driven by one person – maniacally and egotistically. It was indeed the Trump wall, the Trump anti-Muslim immigration controls, the Trumpism and the Trumpery. The team, such as it was, could only be populated by acolytes and praise-singers – those with their own minds were quickly sent packing. With a narcissistic egomaniac running the show, even quite sinister agendas could be advanced by shadowy figures, simply by letting Trump own the plan and the limelight.

Was anything of lasting value achieved by all this individualised nonsense? All we got was relentless posturing and screeching. Too much “me” does not create any result for the “we.”

The paradox with the new US administration is that Joe Biden is not that guy. He has calmly added seasoned experts and experienced thinkers to his various teams. He is not about to put himself in the spotlight every day – he has neither the energy nor the ego for that circus. Nor does he have the bandwidth to come up with every plan that’s needed. The initiatives that emerge may well have his name on them, but they will not be his in any real sense. And that’s good.

The wider lesson for the rest of us? As followers, stop worshipping personalities and start looking for competent teams to back. There are no human messiahs and saviours – not unless they know how to get things done through others.

To any budding leader out there, I would say this: your primary role is to create the conditions in which good things can be done – by others. It is not to be the busiest person in the organization; it is not to be present in every meeting; it is not to be smiling at every camera. For much of the time, you should be invisible, working behind the scenes to develop your team’s kinship and camaraderie, and to use your authority to make their work easier.

That is the actual essence of leadership – to nurture and to enable. The end result should be a hive mind and a collective spirit that can rise to enormous challenges.

Working behind the scenes should not be mistaken for weakness. True strength is not loud and attention-seeking; it is calm and reflective and it comes up with long-term solutions, not just hysterical knee-jerk responses. Your leadership is not judged by you; it is measured in the uplift of your people and institution – the greater good for the longer term.

No amount of tweets and posts, media mentions, name recognition or flashy smiles can do that part for you. 

(Sunday Nation, 31 January 2021)

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