Many years ago I knew a young college basketball coach. I was interested in his approach to the game because the success his teams achieved was much higher than the inherent talent of his players would imply. It was obvious they were disciplined. You could see it in the way they approached practices, how they behaved on the bench and in the intensity with which they played on the floor. As I listened to him describe his philosophy of coaching, I was impressed by one tenet – the system is more important than the individual players. He found a way to overcome a deficit in talent by organizing a strong collective system.
As I understood more about the way he approached the game, I noticed certain characteristics about his coaching. First, there was very little freelancing. Both on offense and defense they executed with a precision uncharacteristic of most teams I had seen at that time. Very little was left to chance as shot selection was yielded directly from the offense, not from the individual skill of players. Second, his players trusted the system and each other. Since they all knew what the offense or defense was trying to accomplish, they understood that success was not about scoring or defending alone. They were trying to accomplish very specific things – where and when the shot would come, as well as what they were trying to force the opposing offense to do. Third, he always wanted to control as much about the game as he could by slowing or accelerating the tempo of play, forcing an opposing coach to make adjustments and forcing the opposing players to take shots from areas on the floor different than their normal offense would prescribe.
I admired his success, which has continued to this day, as he is now the head coach at an NCAA Division I university. However, he always reminded me that the success of his disciplined, systematic approach could only take his team so far. He would often look at me and say, “In the end, talent wins.” I found it interesting that a coach with a clear dedication to a system also recognized the essential contributions of the individual. He was a “both/and” coach who respected individual talent, but remained committed to a collective system.
Since then I have wondered about the power of the system vs. the power of the individual. Several examples come to mind. Society benefits from compassionate charismatic leadership on many levels. We all know individuals who by force of personality and persuasion have a capacity to influence others. My observation is most of the time this works if the talented leader is also submissive to the collective interest. Yet we have seen many situations in corporate leadership, religious institutions and governments where individual talent is gradually corrupted into individual control and self-interest. Eventually, the organization, community or society is robbed of its integrity as the needs and interests of one, compromise the well-being of all.
A system, like an individual, also has its limitations. It can be too confining, driving out the creativity that sparks innovation and new ideas. The collective work of the system requires an enormous commitment to tend to the health of the organization in a way that can ensure progress, without compromising underlying values. The system relies on interdependence, integration and alignment to do this. The collective will of an assembled group charged with the responsibility to achieve a goal is incredibly powerful. The shadow side, however, is the weight of collective action can sometimes slow the process and lead to a means-end reversal where the process becomes the goal and the achievement of the goal is lost in process.
Leadership and governance taken together represent the interdependence of individual talent and the collective system. If we are nostalgic about the past, we would argue we used to get this right. Leaders knew how to inspire and animate us to action and governing bodies knew how to organize us toward effective process and result. My sense is we never get this quite right, but each organization, community and nation struggles to maintain a healthy interdependence of the two, however imperfect. The real issue is not whether we can get it perfect, but whether we can maintain essential functionality. Today we are struggling with many settings in which dysfunction is the norm, and frustration is growing. It’s as if our societal tolerance is waning as leaders seem to fail us too often and governing bodies descend into intractable conflict.
What’s changed? Is there anything different? Perhaps. The emergence of global digital communication is a massive change in societies around the world we have not yet learned to manage. I think this will take many years to sort out. Leaders are learning what used to be privileged or private communication is no longer acceptable, at least not as we once knew it. They are finding speculation, testing ideas and open dialogue are high risk activities. Leaders are having marginal impact as ideology rules, litmus tests abound and pledges to take or not take certain actions defy reason and confine action. It’s just not safe to make a move – better to pass the ball. Public scrutiny is now heightened to a level in which the zone of trust is quite narrow.
The power of talented leadership has been tempered by an expanding role for governance. Concurrently, as the pressure on governance becomes more intense with higher expectations for results, our systems are being tested by an expanding chorus of voices that are increasingly dissonant. The length of process time for governance has been reduced to hours and minutes rather than weeks or months. Individual voices ring out in public distress making the environment for conversation toxic before the process even begins. In the end we find ourselves suffering under a paralysis of leadership and systems of governance that are widely dysfunctional.
Moving forward will not be easy and it will take time to accomplish, but here is how I think we can make progress. First, despite the speed of communication, we must find a way to think with longer time horizons in mind. The depth of the challenges we face in the United States and around the world will not be solved in one election cycle, but many. If our leaders could begin to talk about a plan for 2020 or 2030 rather than December of 2012, we will begin to view our choices with a different lens. It will take extraordinary leadership to do this, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Second, we must become realistic about what even highly-talented leadership can accomplish. A national or global economy is not “managed” by anyone. The interdependent systems that drive economic progress are highly interdependent and will only be advanced by collective action.
Third, we have to abandon the false dichotomies dominating the rhetoric of the day. Once we acknowledge most solutions will come through a “both/and” approach, rather than an “either/or” default, we will see new synergies that open new pathways to shared success.
If we do not embrace the interdependence of leadership and governance soon within the systems we have, I think we will eventually exhaust ourselves and begin to look for new systems. The consequences of exhaustion, however, are being manifested in areas of the world where leadership and governance have failed. We have an opportunity ahead to find a new balance point. It begins with recognizing we are on the same team.