Story update 4/07/2011: A reference to Rick Nash was changed to John Forbes Nash.
In 1776 Adam Smith claimed that the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what’s best for themselves. During the early 1950s, John Forbes Nash revised Adam Smith’s claim and stated that the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what’s best for themselves and the group. It took us 174 years of examination to realize that an individual in a group often attains the best possible outcome for himself not by a segregated pursuit of the outcome, but through a unified sense of purpose and a cooperative effort for accomplishing it. Let it not be another 174 years until we understand the cultural implications of this claim for organizations and the people that they are composed of.
Establishing a desired culture within an organization is a complex task. The call for mass cohesion requires an individual not to set aside her personal pursuits, but to realize that a unified effort in which all members share and pursue a single organizational purpose will bear the best individual result. It is the responsibility of organizational leaders to define and communicate purpose to their executive and management teams so that they may be further communicated to front-line staff members. The worlds of music and athletics have known this, even if only intuitively, for centuries.
In music, one conductor of an orchestra may consistently elicit a superior performance compared to another conductor, even though they are given professional instrumentalists of equal skill level. What is it that one conductor does that makes the performance noticeably better than the other? The answer is simple yet profound. The successful conductor unifies the group to achieve the purpose of putting on the best possible performance. The successful conductor is able to make the musicians realize that by understanding the balance and relationship that each instrument should have with one another, a far better sound is produced than if they were to all play single-mindedly at the same time. The unified sound produced by the group is more powerful than any individual player or collection of individual players could hope to achieve.
In athletics we see examples of extremely talented, hard-working individuals who cannot find a team that will accept them because coaches are simply uninterested. The experienced coach would much prefer to protect the unified group than jeopardize the team’s cohesion by introducing a high-performing individual who acts as a silo and disunites the group. The successful professional coach knows that the collective unified team can accomplish much more than any one self-interested player.
Group musicians, athletic clubs, and business organizations win and lose as teams. High-performing individuals, as well as others, must be made to realize that their efforts and their individual desires will be better fulfilled by serving the team than by simply serving themselves. In generating this understanding, most business leaders fail. Leaders must intimately know and demonstrate a strong sense of purpose. This purpose must be articulated and well communicated to every corner of the organization, as well as reflected through its actions. Leaders must provoke a profound experience of improved functioning within the organization by enlightening people about how each of them, as single instruments, must understand their role in the context of the whole, and best contribute to the overall performance of the business. When leaders are able to enlighten people to the uplifting feeling of unified functioning, people become attached to it, crave it, and are motivated to contribute to it. This trend of contribution to a unified purpose is commonly referred to as business culture.
Leaders must not be too afraid or indecisive to lead. It is time for today’s organizational leaders to make concrete decisions about their purpose and to take the lead in influencing culture. Leaders must initiate and stand behind a strong sense of organizational values, driving collective performance, and giving their people a sense of purpose that is much more emotionally powerful than reporting revenue numbers.