May 15th, 2010
02:46 PM ET

Dear Mr. President # 481 "No 'I' in team"

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: President Obama, like every president, began his time in office by assembling a team. But having a team, and playing with a team can be two different matters. For the next few days, my letters to the president will be about teamwork.

Dear Mr. President,

Being an avid basketball fan, you must have seen the collapse of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as they were driven out of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, whom many sportswriters still consider man-for-man far less talented. And no doubt, you've heard some analysts adding up the reasons for the failure: Bad shooting, good defense, too much aggression, too little aggression, lack of heart, lack of soul, tight Nikes, loose jerseys, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But do you want to know the real, core reason? I think it is precisely because they were LeBron AND the Cavs. Not simply the Cavs.

Much is made of the value of a Superhero on any team, whether in sports, politics, or business. But a Superhero, no matter the venue, has to be truly, outrageously, and reliably super under all sorts of circumstances to outplay even a moderately skilled, but truly coordinated team. Or to put it more succinctly: In most collaborative circumstances on most days, teams win.individuals do not.

I've thought of this a lot in the past few decades as we seem to have grown ever more enamored of the Gladiator approach in our country. Of course, it is thrilling to see the lone combatant stand up to the vastly superior forces and hammer them into retreat. Watching a great athlete like LeBron force his will on the court is enormously entertaining. And on any given day, against any given team, such overwhelming talent will produce victory. But when the other team stands up and plays like a team; sharing the burdens and the honors, encouraging each other through thick and thin, and picking away at the Superhero, most of the time the hero will fall.

Don't get me wrong. Certainly every team needs talent. You don't win much with a bunch of stumblers on your bench. But I'll put my money any day on a handful of solid team players over a single star no matter how gifted he may be.

It's not just that lone combatants can't reasonably be expected to shoulder the entire load; it is also that the focus on these Superheroes, I think, undermines the abilities of the rest of the team. Would you want to be the B player who takes a shot in the final seconds and loses the game? No. It is safer by far (even if you are open) to pass to the star (even if he is covered) and let him miss.

The Superhero cult that we have bought into, I think, has helped produce those wildly overpaid Wall Street Executives, power hungry political players, and of course more than one sports hero who you can see headed for a fall even as he or she is being hoisted up on that pillar. Worse, this trend, has made it harder for reasonable people in business, politics, or even society to speak up and warn their leaders about potential pitfalls, or to offer good ideas. Because, after all, what kind of Superhero needs advice from mere mortals?

A wise leader recognizes that he or she is there to guide the team; to draw the best out of everyone on the field; but not to singlehandedly BE the team. That leader sees hir or her own weaknesses, and finds strength in teammates. And that leader shares the glory; every moment of every game.

When I coached soccer, I told my players, "If you score a goal, your first duty is to find the person who passed the ball to you, and congratulate and thank her. Without that help, you would be nowhere."

As we try to grapple with many problems in our nation, and right our economy, and reunite across our many divides, I suspect that is a good starting point; for all of us to push the Superheroes aside for a bit, and refocus on the truly heroic and reliable power of "we."

More tomorrow. Call if you get a moment. And hey, if you can, check out my Building Up America special on CNN today at 3pm. Good fun! Speaking of teams, I'm going to be out at the Team America Rocketry Challenge in Virginia watching my daughter's team compete. You should come!



soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Romona

    You said it perfectly! Having watched hundreds of hockey games with our son, I definitely agree. The team will always pull through....and the superhero will have his moment. But never forget the others who helped you achieve that "moment".

    May 15, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
  2. Amanda Walton

    You are very wise Mr. Foreman and make excellent points., sometimes team players end up separating into too many "i"'s, or go against the plays they practiced then it becomes very lonely at the top because then what is the coach to do,

    Does the head coach trust the team players who continue to stray off the game plan by leaving the playbook in the hands of the opposing team like on "Coach" when Dauber left the playbook in a cafe although Dauber righted the wrong and worked hard to learn a valuable lesson and show Coach he was ready to be one himself.

    If the players don't learn but expect the coach to win the game alone while they are to busy dribbling on the court but that's it, does the coach then trade them to find the team players who have the pro experience and dream to work hard enough at least to make the playoffs and shoot for the grand prize once there? .. hmm.. something that has given me many sleepless nights these days ..

    Cheers to you, your family and friends to all H.A.N.D. 🙂

    May 15, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
  3. @olympiangf08

    I think this is superb!! This is a great explanation of the difference between a great “TEAM” and an good team and a good player. Well done!!

    May 15, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
  4. Noel

    Who exactly is "we"?

    Your basketball analogy, although simple, reminds me of the '90s, and Michael Jordan. It took him time. But we all know how that turned out.

    Politics, on the other hand, is a lot more complicated. There are no trophies. No off-season. Where the word "we", good in any other circumstance, is nothing more than a tool to give the illusion of unity. Who exactly is "we"? And what exactly do "we" want?

    If the "republicans" is what you call "we", then "we" is the minority. A minority status well deserved. How fickle is the populace? Have forgotten how bad it was? Rampant corruption in congress, A President that had a history of succumbing to big oil and financial companies, low international moral standing was the norm. The consequences of which still linger like bad sushi. These are exactly the problems this new President got elected to solve. It is not quite shooting ball in a basket, is it?

    We are light-years away from what was. Thanks to this President.

    If the republicans say "NO" that's fine. But where is the "we" in that?

    May 15, 2010 at 6:51 pm |