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ASK OCE — March 17, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 6

The Manhattan Project. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Apple Computer. The Lockheed Skunk Works. Walt Disney Studio animators. These are vivid examples of what leadership expert Warren Bennis calls “Great Groups.” A Great Group, according to Bennis, is a collection of diverse, talented, and driven individuals that tackle a seemingly impossible task, often coming up with a solution that “puts a dent in the universe.”

Over the course of his 45-year career, Bennis examined creative collaborations in business, government, the arts, and the sciences, and became convinced that very few great accomplishments were the work of a single individual. He points out that Michelangelo worked with a team of thirteen fellow artists as well as a support crew of two hundred to create the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Great Groups are a place where there is creative support and personal fellowship among the members of the team. The group acts as a sounding board for the most outrageous ideas and audacious possibilities. Great Groups are extremely diverse and their goals are quite varied, but Bennis names ten traits that talented teams share:

  • At the core of every Great Group is a shared vision. All Great Groups believe that they are on a mission that is larger than the group — or even the institution — itself. They see their task as “a fervent quest.”
  • They manage conflict by abandoning individual egos in the name of a common goal. Conflict in Great Groups serves as a way of transcending ego to remind the members of the importance of the collective mission.
  • They are insulated from the “suits.” All Great Groups chafe under their organizational overseers and are protected from them by a wise leader.
  • They have enemies real or imagined. Even the clearest mission can be helped by the actual or tacit existence of a “heavy.” In the case of the Manhattan Project, the Japanese and Nazis were literal enemies. Apple Computer was able to leverage the energy and talent of its Great Group by pitting itself against IBM as its Goliath.
  • They see themselves as scrappy underdogs. Great Groups typically consist of mavericks, people at the fringes of their fields. These groups do not regard the mainstream as sacred.
  • Membership in a Great Group tends to come at a personal price. The members of Great Groups don’t tend to clock in and out after and eight hour shift. Their work tends to be all consuming and their personal lives can suffer as a result.
  • Great Groups have potent leaders. Great leaders rely on Great Groups and vice-versa. The leaders Bennis studied were seldom the brightest stars on the team, but they were instead “connoisseurs of talent, more like curators than creators.”
  • Great Groups come into existence through rigorous recruiting. The leaders of Great Groups tend to “cherry-pick” talent for a group. Great leaders, like great coaches have the ability to place the right people in the right role.
  • Great Groups are often a youth enterprise. The average age of the Manhattan Project physicists at Los Alamos was about twenty-five. Thirty-something Oppenheimer was called “the old man” by the members of his team. The youth component provides the physical stamina often demanded by Great Groups.
  • Great Groups ship. By this, Bennis meant that such groups — no matter how wildly creative and innovative — create a tangible product. Steve Jobs often told his team of Apple pioneers that all their work would amount to nothing if they had no viable product to show for it.

In the course of his work, Bennis also discovered four behavioral traits that the leaders of Great Groups share:

  • Leaders of Great Groups provide direction and meaning. They remind team members of what’s important and why their work makes a difference.
  • They create and maintain trust. The group’s innate trust in itself and its leader allows members to ride out periods of tumult and dissent during the creative process.
  • They are tireless advocates for risk-taking, action, and curiosity. At the heart of every Great Group is a willingness to risk failure to achieve results as well as a sense of creative urgency.
  • They are the guardians of hope. Great team leaders have the uncanny ability find ways to make their teams believe they can overcome extreme odds.

Bennis says that there is no simple way to develop these leadership skills; he calls it “more an art than a science.” He observes that great groups and their leaders remind us of author Luciano de Crescanzo’s observation that “we are all angels with only one wing; we can only fly while embracing one another.”

“In the end,” he concludes, “these groups cannot be managed, only led in flight.”


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