Individual Stardom or Team Success: Lessons from the Olympic Hardwood

Many years ago, I had the privilege of a lunch conversation with Max Depree, the then Chairman of Hermann Miller and author of “The Art of Leadership”. Amidst discussions about leadership and organizational values, he posed a simple yet profoundly impactful question he often asked during interviews: “If given the choice, would you rather make an All-Star team or be a member of a national championship team?”

What happens when individual matters more than team?

Fast forward to the relatively modern-day, where in 2004 a USA Olympic team, boasting a roster filled with NBA All-Stars – the epitome of basketball talent and individual prowess – was humbled on the global stage by Puerto Rico. Their unexpected loss serves as a poignant reminder of Depree’s question and its deeper implications.

Being on an All-Star team is a testament to individual prowess. It’s a spotlight on personal achievements, skill, and talent. Making it to such a team signifies that you’re amongst the best in your field. It’s an accolade that can open doors, create opportunities, and set an individual apart from the crowd. In today’s era, where personal branding is paramount and social media celebrates individual achievements, it’s tempting to yearn for the All-Star status. After all, doesn’t it seem fitting in a world that often shouts, “Look at me”?

In Practice is Different than On Paper

On the other hand, being a member of a national championship team speaks to collective success. It’s not just about one’s individual brilliance but about how effectively one can work within a team, contribute to a shared goal, and sometimes, step back to let others shine.

Being part of such a team means celebrating collective achievements, understanding the importance of roles (both big and small), and recognizing that the sum is indeed greater than its individual parts. It’s about collaboration, shared victories, and the joy of achieving something monumental together.

The loss of the NBA-laden USA Olympic team serves as a stark reminder of this dichotomy. On paper, they were unbeatable – a team of All-Stars, each capable of being the game-winner. Yet, basketball, like many endeavors, isn’t just played on paper. The synergy, understanding, and shared commitment often showcased by teams with fewer individual stars but a more cohesive game plan can outshine even the brightest individual talents.

It reminds us that while individual brilliance is crucial, the magic often lies in teamwork, in understanding roles, and in playing not for personal accolades but for the team’s success.

Max Depree’s question is more than a measure of preference. It gauges an individual’s intrinsic values, their belief in teamwork versus individual accomplishment, and their potential fit in team-centric environments. In an era that sometimes leans heavily towards the “me” culture, organizations striving for a “we” culture find this distinction invaluable.

The Olympic hardwood has taught us that a team of stars doesn’t necessarily make a star team. As Max Depree highlighted, and as events have often shown, the balance between individual achievement and collective success is delicate but crucial.  In the interplay of these choices, leaders are molded, cultures are defined, and true success stories are written.

About the Author

Paul Doyle
Paul Doyle is the founder of LeaderWork. He brings more than 35 years of diverse business experience, including 15 years as a CEO, leading manufacturing companies. Paul has been active in North America with companies ranging from $20 million to $450 million in revenue.