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Stop Looking for Leaders, Start Looking for Teammates

A team is a human mandala, says complexity theorist Yaneer Bar-Yam.
by Max Borders


Complex systems theory is still a young field. But it has amazing applications across a number of life’s dimensions. At Voice & Exit, we’re complexity geeks.

And during this election year, we couldn’t be more delighted with Yaneer Bar-Yam’s Teams manifesto, which — rooted in complexity thinking — sets out a vision for turning to each other for change. 

Bar-Yam writes:

Why should governments fail? Because leaders, whether self-appointed dictators, or elected officials, are unable to identify what policies will be good for a complex society. The unintended consequences are beyond their comprehension. Regardless of values or objectives, the outcomes are far from what they intend.

There is a solution. It is not a form of government, no “ism” or “ocracy’’ will do. It begins with widespread individual action that transforms society — -a metamorphosis of social organization in which leadership no longer serves the role it has over millennia. A different type of existence will emerge, affecting all of us as individuals and enabling us to live in a complex world.

To be successful in high complexity challenges requires teamwork. Each team member performs one part of what needs to be done, contributing to the complexity and scale of what the team does while limiting the complexity each individual faces.

Teamwork is more capable than economic coordination or central decision making.

The increasing complexity of society means professional and personal endeavors will be done in teams. Teams will range from a few individuals to many, in one place or spanning the globe. They will differentiate roles — sharing responsibility for decisions and actions.

Psychology will change. While heroic fiction describes individual striving, we need to learn that being a member of a team is heroic. As in sports, teams form collective identities.

We need to stop looking for leaders and start looking for teammates.

Why do great challenges require teamwork? Because teams let us divide labor. Teams let us apply our talents where they create higher value. But teams also mean that people can cluster together around diverse missions, or rules, or sets of values. And, of course, teams are capable of camaraderie, even love.

The Great Lateralization that’s currently unfolding — to accommodate all this complexity — is going to run headlong into hierarchical thinking and hierarchical sentiments. We can see this in the adoration of political candidates. We can see it in the misplaced aspirations for people (and by people) in distant capitals.

But if Bar-Yam is right, we will do well first to look inward to ourselves as sources of change. Then we’ll need to look for the right teammates. “Teams at work, and teams in life — a human mandala,” writes Bar-Yam. “ Join, become part of the team. From now on, it is about we and not about me or you. We are one.”