Give me a T, an E, an A, an M. Whattaya got? Usually, confusion

  • Beyond Success, by Brian D. Biro (Perigree, January 2001)
  • The Five Faces of Genius, by Annette Moser-Wellman (Viking, March 2001)
  • Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton (The Free Press, January 2001)

"There is no I in team!"

With the exception of "drop and give me 20," there is probably no other line that coaches have uttered more often throughout history. We all know the clichÉs, which is exactly why it's appealing to business-book writers to use them.

Because each of us has played organized sports at one point, even if it was just first-grade kickball, and because would-be leaders are always looking for simple analogies to inspire the troops, there has been a glut of books by coaches who use sports metaphors to show us how we can run our businesses better.

As a rule, these books are terrible. For the few that are clear, concise, and valuable -- like Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life, by Rick Pitino, or Finding a Way to Win: The Principles of Leadership, Teamwork, and Motivation, by Bill Parcells -- there are scores of others that are clichÉ-filled wastes of time.

The reason that most of these books fail seems clear: the best coaches let players build on their individual strengths while managing around their weaknesses. Unlike most businesspeople, the coaches don't assume they'll get the greatest gains if they correct someone's weaknesses. To oversimplify: if you can hit a home run like Babe Ruth, why focus on your bunting skills?

That is a hard concept for most managers to grasp, and it's even harder for them to get across to their employees. If you're a manager acting as a coach, you must help your staffers gain the skills they're going to need -- in communication, organization, and basic analysis -- no matter what their job title is. Second, you must help them figure out what they're best at. And finally, you have to let them capitalize on their strengths. (No more ordering your Babe Ruths to learn how to bunt.)

The following three books, taken in order, will help. For the basics, start with Beyond Success: The 15 Secrets to Effective Leadership and Life Based on Legendary Coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success, by Brian D. Biro. At UCLA, Wooden won an unbelievable 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 years. But as Biro points out, Wooden was first and foremost a teacher. His ultimate objective was creating not just winning teams but success for his players -- and Wooden knew the difference between the two things. Here's how he puts it: "Success is peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you gave your best effort to become the best of which you are capable."

Wooden helped his players by carefully laying out the 15 steps to achievement, which he called the "Pyramid of Success." Indeed, when the coach graphed the steps, he drew them in the form of a pyramid with some surprising choices among the building blocks on the bottom -- industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm -- which supported competitive greatness on the top.

Biro walks through all the steps in the pyramid, offering real-world scenarios to demonstrate each. He effectively shows how his mantra can be applied in the workaday world. Even though Biro, who is a corporate speaker on team building and coaching, tends to insert himself too much into the tale, learning from the wisdom of Wooden -- even secondhand -- is worthwhile.

To figure out what you are best at, you can get some pointers from The Five Faces of Genius: The Skills to Master Ideas at Work, by Annette Moser-Wellman, a former ad executive turned consultant. Moser-Wellman says that genius comes in five flavors:

  • Seers "see pictures in their mind's eye, and these pictures become the impetus of ingenious ideas." The artist Georgia O'Keeffe and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc are seers, says Moser-Wellman.
  • Observers "notice the details of the world around them and collect them to construct a new idea." Walt Disney and Robert Frost are two of the author's examples.
  • Alchemists "bring together separate domains -- different ideas, disciplines, or systems of thought -- and connect them in a unique way to develop breakthrough ideas." Adman Leo Burnett and Mickey Drexler of the Gap are examples given here.
  • Fools "celebrate weakness. Fools practice three related skills: excelling at inversion, seeing the sense in absurdity, and having unending perseverance." The author's choices for this category: Jeff Bezos of and David Packard of Hewlett-Packard.
  • Sages "use the power of simplification as the primary means to inspiration." Michael Dell of Dell Computer and artist Alexander Calder are two examples.

After laying out the five categories of genius, Moser-Wellman suggests various ways that you can try to capitalize on your own area of brilliance. She goes on to discuss how you can get better at things you don't do well -- which is where she goes wrong and misses the point of the capitalize-on-your-strength philosophy. Would Mozart have been a better composer if he had tried harder to develop Moser-Wellman's four other traits? Would Michael Dell have been even richer? In both cases, not only is the answer no, but you can make a plausible argument that both men would have been far worse off. Any time they would have spent trying to get better in one area would have taken away from the time they spent perfecting their unique gifts.

In Now, Discover Your Strengths Marcus Buckingham (coauthor of First, Break All the Rules) and Donald O. Clifton also discuss playing your strong suit. The authors effectively hammer home a twofold premise: each person's talents are enduring and unique, and each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas where he or she is already strongest. They write: "In schools and workplaces ... each one of us has been encouraged to identify, analyze, and correct our weaknesses in order to become strong. This advice is well intended, but misguided. Fault and failings deserve study, but they reveal little about strength. Strengths have their own patterns."

Perhaps the most effective part of the book is the section on how managers can identify and nurture their employees' personal strengths. But the devil is in the details. "If you are to keep your talented employees and spur each of them on to greater performance, you will have to discern how each one is unique and then figure out ways to capitalize on this uniqueness," they write.

The message is clear: There is no I in team, but there should be.

Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of

Executive Reader

Gwenda Blair
Author of The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire (Simon & Schuster, September 2000)

On her nightstand
The Chief, by David Nasaw. "This biography of William Randolph Hearst paints a much different picture of him from the one that's been popularized," Blair says. "According to Nasaw, Hearst was not very accurately portrayed in Citizen Kane at all. He didn't have the black-and-white negative influence on politics that we all assume he had. And even his personal relationship with Marion Davies was more complex than the movie suggested."

Recent fave
Titan, by Ron Chernow. " Titan is an interesting picture of the Rockefeller family and how that fortune was built," Blair says. "John D. Rockefeller handled his money in a very abstemious way even though he was deluged with requests for funds from all sorts of quarters."

To write her Trump bio, Blair reread her subject's autobiography, Trump: The Art of the Deal. "It's a remarkable picture about how one entrepreneur purports to look at things," she says. --written by Mike Hofman

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