At a time when the world economy keeps flirting with limits to growth over the continued depletion of seemingly finite resources, the one infinite resource that undoubtedly holds the potential breakthroughs for greater global growth -- human talent -- remains significantly undervalued and relatively underexploited [in the best sense of the term]. [1] The real energy crisis today is in ideas and creativity, rather than petroleum, and yet we steadfastly continue to ensnare talented people, and their ideas, in organizational cages that were built in periods of capital- and labor-intensity, and which were designed for command and control, rather than liberation and excellence. The results, worldwide: great people achieving mediocre results. What an extraordinary waste!

Perhaps our squandering of “talent” begins with the very usage of the word, as if it were a homogenous resource. I believe, instead, that all talent issues begin with the individual: Talent is not a plural! And that, in fact, we need to consider what the organizational consequences of restoring a degree of individuality to the talent issue would result in? In recent research that I have conducted with Andy Boynton on the characteristics of successful teams composed of profoundly talented people[2], we have reaffirmed the old adage that the road to professional success – not to mention a better world -- is a lot easier if you can surround yourself with people smarter than you, and then let them show it. At the same time, we’ve also recognized that one consequence of following such advice is to entertain, on occasion, the reality of challenging team environments and the need to adopt new leadership practices better suited to encouragement, than to judgment and control. Our belief, however, is that such alterations are a small price to pay for helping talent contribute to a better world, for itself, the organization of which it is a part, and for the clients of such organizations.

For me, at a personal level, talent issues all begin with the sentiments of the great saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, who once observed, regarding his own considerable talent:

My whole life has been devoted to the achievement of some important breakthroughs, and I would die disappointed if I couldn’t reach them. I want to live up to my promise, not just for me, but for the music.[3]                                                  

This should be the cry of all professional talent, no matter what the field. This quest for achievement should not be just limited to artists, but should be the inspiration for our colleagues in information technology, marketing, manufacturing, legal, and the host of other professions that define the modern corporation. And, we, as leader-aspirants, should strive to fulfill this desire, within the overall objectives of corporate goals. How can this be done? That is the focus of the work that we have been engaged in, in the Virtuoso Team project.

Smart People Leading Smarter People

            Our research has focused on a number of great teams, including:

  • Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators in an all-star team which also included Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent, launched a revolution on Broadway with the introduction of serious music, classical ballet and social conscious, all at the same time in the award-winning, commercial block-buster West Side Story, and fundamentally changed the way we think about contemporary theatre.
  • Miles Davis and the reinvention of jazz in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Three times, Miles Davis assembled all-star bands [entirely different teams for each decade] in successful revolutionary efforts that completely redefined the existing jazz world of the time. The results were: “cool” jazz, “modal” music, and “fusion.” Each of which was both an artistic and a commercial breakthrough in the world of contemporary music.
  • Up against some of the stiffest scientific competition ever assembled, and with the security of the “free-world” at stake, the scientists assembled for the Manhattan Project not only created the atomic bomb, but ushered-in a whole new world of managing “big science” that has continued into the present.
  • As with any new technology, the birth of television in the early nineteen fifties created the challenge of developing new content for the new medium. Sid Caesar, a comic genius, surrounded himself with a virtuoso team of other geniuses, including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon, and created a commercial success that dominated the industry in its early days.
  • Light [electric incandescent], action [“talking” motion pictures], sound [recorded sound]! All are the product of an unlikely team of seriously smart people who were called “The Muckers,” by their leader, Thomas Edison.
  • Edward R. Murrow changed the nature of Broadcast Journalism by recruiting the smartest people he could find – Murrow’s Boys, putting them in a position where they really could apply their knowledge, and then providing them with an opportunity to tell the world about it.

These teams were all defined by big, ambitious, personally-risky goals [not modest aspirations], and a relentless search for the absolute best talent obtainable, both of which gave them a head-start on “greatness.” They, then, applied leadership approaches that allowed their assembled talent to be as good as the promise that had led them to desire those individuals in the first place. Among the leadership practices that we observed, were:

1.. Leader as talent-scout

      One characteristic that all of our teams had in common was the time devoted by the leader to identifying potential talent. From Miles Davis moving from club to club, listening to all sorts of musicians; to J. Robert Oppenheimer scouring the campuses of America for the right scientific skills; to Russell Coutts, and the leadership team of America’s Cup-winning sailboat Alinghi, building a talent depth-chart position by position; we were amazed by the amount of personal leadership time devoted to getting the best people obtainable, position by position. This was not delegated, nor was it done in absentia. In every case, it was a central piece of the leadership role.

2. Listening rather then telling

      If you assemble all-stars at each position, and pay the premium for doing so, then listening should be the most important activity that the leader is involved in. We saw this in all of our teams. Miles Davis, for example, was characterized as a world-class listener, despite his world-famous reputation for opinion and self-confidence. Only by listening, can the team leader understand and appreciate the potential contributions of the talented individuals that have been assembled.

3. Focus on collaboration and an exchange of ideas (not idea hoarding)

      Ideas have value only if they’re shared. Each of our virtuoso teams succeeded because they shared rather than protected ideas. Thomas Edison, for example, built his “invention factory” so that ideas between developers and machinists could move rapidly in both directions. This does not mean that there was not competition within the teams; far from it. But small, cramped quarters forced a degree of intensity, immediacy, and transparency on all team-conversations which ensured a much higher level of awareness across all team members, and were nearly a universal norm among our teams, be they the Manhattan Project, Sid Caesar’s television rehearsals, or Roald Amundsen’s winter quarters.

4. Fail faster to succeed sooner (prototyping) (a learning culture)

       When facing big risks, taking small ones frequently allows a team to move faster and with less chance of catastrophic failure. We’ve borrowed IDEO’s words above to articulate this lesson, but experimentation and prototyping as a way to achieve fast-learning was characteristic of all of our teams – such as with the West Side Story project, where the dances were fashioned into ever-changeable modules; or with Amundsen’s Polar team, that took huge risks by learning more in small increments.

5. Challenge ideas not the “person”

         Virtuoso teams thrive on direct challenge to ideas, but not to the individual. Since the teams are drawn from all-star selections, the potential of each member is appreciated not questioned. What is questioned, however, immediately and directly are any actions that can be improved to the team’s benefit. Such a tolerance for challenge profoundly changes team dynamics and makes for a much more involved leadership-role; however, the results are worth it. As Sid Caesar’s mentor was fond of saying: Polite teams yield polite results!

6. Let individuals soar

        If you go to the trouble, and expense, of finding and recruiting great people, let them be great. Don’t bend them to fit the team. General Leslie Groves, who along with Oppenheimer made the Manhattan Project the success that it was, adopted the leadership attitude of always asking: “What can I do to make it easier for you to do your job?”[4] The idea is to put talented individuals in a position where they can be as good as their promise; or, in the words of pianist Herbie Hancock, reflecting on his time with Miles Davis, creating a team environment which transforms musicians to magicians.

We believe that within the ability of talented people to fulfill their ambitions in the pursuit of team or organizational goals, lies one very real way of employing leadership for a better world. This is not easy to do, and defies currently-fashionable attitudes towards ambitiousness, elites, and “we-ness.” But, we also believe that organizations that win in the talent-wars, do it one individual at a time, and by enabling talented people to fulfill their potential, we increase the likelihood that we all win as a result.

* This was written for and first appeared in: IEDC, Leadership for a Better World, IEDC Bled School of Management, 2006.

[1] William A. Fischer, “The Impact of Globalization on Corporate Talent Utilization and Deployment: New Models and Perspectives,” The Evolving Global Talent Pool, Ideas Challenges, and Implications, New York: The Levin Institute, 2005.

[2] Andy Boynton & Bill Fischer, Virtuoso Teams, London: FT/Prentice Hall, 2005.

[3] Sonny Rollins quoted in Eric Nienson, The Making of a Kind of Blue, New York: St. Martins Press, 2000; p. 5.

[4] Norris, Robert S. Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man. South Royalton Vermont: Steerforth Press, 2002, p.203.