The Human Condition:

The Power of Teamwork – April 3, 2016

Blue Angels

I’ve been listening again to the choral version of Toto’s Africa, which contains the line “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.” While the line itself is cast in the negative,1 it suggests to me the power of a hundred men working together toward a common aim. And I found that thought profoundly inspiring. In the context of a place like Africa, in the context of shifting climate, changing cultures, rampant civil wars, the cratering scars of old imperialism, and the tenuous hold of modern conventions and laws upon the human psyche, the notion of a hundred men aligning their personal force and engaging their collective will conjures all sorts of possibilities.

A hundred men is roughly the size of an old military company, which used to be under the command of a captain. I can’t think of too many ground objectives that a company of select soldiers, each possessing the right skills, all trained to work together, and loyal to their cause and to each other, could not take militarily.

Think of a hundred men and women operating inside any modern organization, whether a government, corporation, religious group, or other sprawling, multi-state, multi-national, variously purposed body. Just one hundred people with the right blend of skills, working to a common purpose, sharing a common vision, and responding to the commands a single leader, could bend even the largest state or political party in a certain direction or toward a specific goal.

The original Skunk Works at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, formed right before and operating during World War II, reportedly included just forty engineers, including the first Native American female engineer. Apple Corporation’s secretive Industrial Design team, mostly recently delivering the iWatch to market, includes just twenty individuals drawn from all over the world; compare that to Samsung, which employs a thousand designers in thirty-four research centers scattered around the globe. The original SEAL Team Six, after it was formally authorized in 1980, had just seventy-five active shooters.

These groups and others like them are not open to just anyone. The group picks its candidates for their particular skills, puts them through rigorous training and testing, and eliminates most of them. A specialist group is the ultimate meritocracy: its members are admitted not from any sense of fairness or proportional representation, and not on the basis of the individual’s ambition and desire to join, but for reasons important only to the group and its mission. When you join, you’re there because the group needs you, not because you need the group.

That kind of selectivity builds group pride and cohesion. Every member knows that participation is a validation of his or her skills and a trust in his or her integrity and effort. That makes a person want to live up to the standards set by the group. In a curious way, that kind of meritocracy also tamps down—if not entirely eliminates—competition among members. You are competing against a standard of excellence, working against yourself and your past performance. You also represent a particular blend of skills that others in the group may not possess. So notions of rank and hierarchy, and of gaming your place in the pecking order, simply do not apply. Running someone else down to improve your own standing will hurt group efficiency and its potential for success. And besides, you’ve already arrived, having passed the selection process and become molded into the team.

A tight-knit team of dedicated people can be immensely attractive and even romantic. Think of the mystique surrounding the SEALs and Delta Force. Think of the legends told about the Lockheed Skunk Works, as well as the attempts by other corporations to put that kind of focused power to use. Popular fiction long ago adopted this romance with adventurous groups, like Doc Savage and his team of Monk the chemist, Ham the attorney, Renny the construction engineer, Long Tom the electrical engineer, and Johnny Littlejohn the archeologist and geologist. In more modern times, Ian Fleming has made a cult of the Double-O assassin-spies operating inside the British Secret Service—although they always seem to work solo—while spinoffs like American television’s The Man from Uncle or Britain’s The Avengers2 suggested the more attractive idea of a powerful duo supported by an elite organization. In his novels culminating most recently in Iron Wolf, Dale Brown has fictionally created a small but effective team of engineers and soldiers in Sky Masters Aerospace and the Scion group that becomes in effect an alternative U.S. military force. Such stories arouse a feeling of selfless devotion, purpose, and power that the French capture in the phrase esprit de corps, or “group spirit.”

Something in the human spirit wants to belong, and the smaller, more cohesive, more effective the group, the stronger will that desire be. A person might take some pride in belonging to something as vast and powerful as a nation-state, a political party, or a popular church affiliation, but a more exclusive membership and narrower purpose are generally more attractive. This has always been the draw of country clubs, fraternities, secret societies, cults, and other groups that thrive on being available only to the few rather than the many. Such organizations persist even when their only purpose is social, when members have no particular skills, and when the only merit required of initiates is holding a particular viewpoint or having a certain ethnic background—or even just a large enough bank account or an old enough family name.

But these are only substitutes for being a member of a select team that can actually accomplish something. The key to a skunk works, an Apple design team, or a SEAL team is that they are effective. They choose to undertake a particular project or a mission; they accurately evaluate its obstacles, dangers, and chances of success; they plan for all calculable eventualities; and then they move ahead quickly, efficiently, and decisively. If a member raises an objection, it is to point out a hidden danger or clarify a goal—not to earn debating points or to display his or her own smarts.

This is professional behavior. This approach puts aside the jealousies, ambitions, insecurities, and indecisions that afflict most people in their everyday life—the gnawing doubts and quarrels that most of us would recognize as the petty behavior of an immature person. The professional is an adult, ready to evaluate and take risks, make a commitment, and stand by it—even to the death.3 This is behavior that everyone recognizes and aspires to emulate. This is true worth in a human being.

And that is the power of teamwork. A team collects around an individual leader others who are of like mind, whom he or she knows to have the skills needed to perform a job and the courage, strength, and integrity to take on that job and succeed at it. It is one level of satisfaction to find in yourself those skills matched with the strength and courage to achieve something dangerous or difficult. Every athlete, artist, technician, and leader can find that kind of gratification. But another and higher level of satisfaction accrues to sharing those qualities with others who possess the same aims and purpose as yourself.

This is when human beings are at their peak, and amazing things can happen.

1. Read strictly grammatically, the line is negative: a hundred men can do nothing. But that’s because in the song it follows “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.” Supposedly even a hundred men or more could not ever do this. But when you listen, the second line seems to jump out on its own and become an affirmation “nothing that a hundred men or more could [not] do.”

2. I’m thinking here of the combination of John Steed and Emma Peel. But the more recent movie series, bringing together a team of artificially enhanced and godlike superheroes, also supports the idea of a select team with special talents.

3. See Where Have the Adults Gone? from May 22, 2011, for one definition of an adult: someone who knows—who has completely, internally, and soberly accepted—that he or she will one day die. Such a person makes decisions and calculations of value with that thought in mind and is determined to spend his or her life and effort wisely.