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On teamwork and individualism


Shield to Shield

While working today’s social hour, I flipped through a few pages of a book entitled “A Study of History” by Arnold J. Toynbee. It was here that I came upon a part in particular speaking of the evolution of the Spartan phalanx. 1

A phalanx is a general term for military infantry formation. The popular construction of the word describes a military arrangement of tightly packed soldiers armed with spears and interlocking shields. The shield of your colleague’s protected your exposed right side and your shield in turn protected your fellow teammate’s right side. The dense nature of the arrangement provided a compact defensive structure within an offensive mobile force. The Spartans in particular were able to maintain flexibility in this arrangement due to their single-handed dory spears (as opposed to the Macedonian double handed spears) and their short iron xiphos swords, thusly able to function as a single unit while maintaining some autotomy of the individual.

“One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all.” 2

While Tonybee chronicles the evolution of the basic phalanx into more sophisticated military formations, the modern analogy here is less to the lasting integrity of these specific strategies in an ever evolving battlefield and more on the fundamental component of their value: that each individual member is an integral component to the overall integrity of the unit.

Collaboration today is similar. A part of the usefulness in collaboration is the trust in your team and the ability to defer to their various disciplines of expertise . Relinquishing control doesn’t mean catering to your team’s whims, but rather placing trust in why you have a team in the first place. Each member has his and her strong attributes, each is capable of catching any holes you or any other member may make, and each reinforces the movement forward through tightly formed strategy. Like the phalanx.

Transcend Yourself.

There is strength in vigorous individuality. The composite of the whole is completely dependent upon the constitution of each individual member. And this is where disruption, the positive kind, can come into play, where diverse individuals challenge one another to provoke invigorating new solutions. This is the crucial spice in the recipe of innovative culture.

It can take a single idea to spark action, but it takes action to keep that spark burning. IDEO’s one tenant for Human Centered Design is to compose a team of varying abilities and disciplines.3 This diversity creates a breadth and depth of experience, but provides lateral thinking that enables the connection of a variety of dots—dots which likely may not exist without a particular member in the fold. Consider a melting pot of the strongest points of culture, perspective and skillset—this is innovative teamwork, when one’s individual value reinforces something greater than himself. When one can, for the moment, put his own individualism aside for the common strength of a greater goal.

“The most effective moral communities – from a well-being perspective – are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.”4

Our relentless individualism shades the fact that everything we do affects our society, the people around us, the people in our lives. Strengthen oneself to strengthen those around us. That’s why many of us got into the fields we got into in the first place; to make the world a better, more interesting place. And I believe that if we, from time to time, realize that our individualism is stronger when applied to the benefit of the formation, of the goal, of the pursuit, of the good for our constituents, that we can very rarely go wrong.


1. A Study of History, Volume V, The Disentigrations of Civilization; Arnold J. Toynbee
2. Herodotus vii (trans. G. Rawlinson)
3. HCD Tool Kit; IDEO.org
4. “Hive Psychology, Happiness & Public Policy“; J. Haidt, P. Seder & S. Kesebir (as quoted from Why Teams Make Us Happy; Scott Belsky)

 

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