The good, the bad, and the genius

Ronald Reagan knew how to build a winning political team. So did Bill Clinton. Their secret? They ignored the conventional wisdom.

As the 2016 presidential candidates start the long downhill run to the primaries early next year, the real test of their campaign teams begins.

If history is any guide, many of today’s highflying contenders will fall to earth in the next nine months, dragged down by dysfunctional organizations. What is astounding is that for all their experience running gubernatorial, senatorial or corporate staffs, most of this year’s candidates will repeat the same mistakes that have sunk their predecessors for generations.

For example, Jeb Bush is assembling a team of “superstars,” some of the best names in the campaign business. Hillary Clinton has pulled together staff based primarily on their compatibility and loyalty to her. Both strategies are usually recipes for disappointment.

We have been studying how effective teams work. Much research has been done the past 15 years that can shed light on this question—by anthropologists, sociologists, brain scientists, and even cultural historians, who have uncovered common organizational archetypes that have held through the ages. If we’ve learned anything, it is that conventional wisdom about building and leading successful teams is almost completely wrong.

Here are some common mistakes:

  • The more, the merrier. Why not bring as much talent, experience and intellectual firepower to the challenge as you can afford? There is, in fact, a mathematical argument against doing precisely that. Every new node in a network adds many more potential connections. Thus, while a team of four has just six interconnections, a team of 16 has 120 interconnections. It is near-exponential growth: n * (n-1) / 2.Hierarchies help, but every additional team member adds complexity that can slow down decision-making and hamstring adaptability—not good when elections are won or lost on quick responses to the other candidates’ claims. As psychologist J. Richard Hackman told the Harvard Business Review in 2009: “Big teams usually just wind up wasting everybody’s time.” Better to use the smallest possible team that can get the job done.
  • Recruit for compatibility. That is a recipe for, at best, second-rate results. After Doris Kearns Goodwin published Team of Rivals, her 2005 book on the Lincoln administration, there came a flurry of interest (especially at the Obama White House) in teaming up people who fought on opposite sides of political battles. The downside is that rivals may not be able to fully put aside their differences.Instead, the best solution is a team whose members complement one another. In other words, recruit for maximum diversity. A team with members of different viewpoints is not only less likely to err because of groupthink but also more likely to come up with novel solutions to problems, according to research by Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan.This doesn’t mean finding people of different races who all went to the Kennedy School of Government but rather individuals with different life experiences, talents, cognitive skills and personalities. Bill Clinton’s 1992 “War Room”—with its crazy quilt of personalities such as James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala—is the defining example. Consider the difference between Mr. Obama’s 2008 hugely successful campaign team—a diverse mix of Silicon Valley whiz kids, Chicago pols and party veterans—and his underperforming administrative team.
  • A great team doesn’t need a strong leader. Just the opposite. Diverse teams are also volatile, explain researchers David Harrison and Katherine Klein, because differences in opinions and attitudes can clash. Thus, great teams need an “active manager” to hold them together. In a presidential campaign, there is no place for passive leaders (Patti Solis Doyle with Hillary ’08) or inexperienced ones (Susan Estrich, campaign manager for Dukakis ’88).Similarly, it is the campaign manager’s job to tell the candidate the truth but not to manage him or her. Thanks to Stuart Stevens’s worries about how Mitt Romney’s Mormonism would be perceived, we didn’t see the candidate’s warm, family side (a revelation to voters of both parties) until after the election. All we got during the campaign was stiff Mitt.
  • Stick with the team you’ve got. It is never too late to make a change: Ronald Reagan fired his campaign director, John Sears, on the day of the New Hampshire primary in 1980, replacing him with William Casey, who famously “let Reagan be Reagan.” In the 21st century—thanks to teleconferencing and Web-based recruiting—teams can be formed or dissolved at digital speeds, so why stick with mediocrity?This goes against much of the recent research on teams, which argues for building enduring organizations with a strong internal culture. But the short life spans of campaigns and the winner-take-all nature of politics renders that advice meaningless. Instead, play to win, even if you are still making changes at the 11th hour
  • Don’t lose sight of the big picture. This is great advice for the candidate but not-so-great advice for the campaign manager. Short of a catastrophic change in the competitive environment, great teams settle on a strategy early and then set out to achieve it. They don’t flirt with alternative strategies along the way. Harvard professor J. Richard Hackman has argued for the importance of providing teams with tasks that are clear, challenging, consequential and consistent. Endless brainstorming, so beloved by organizational theorists in the past is, in fact, a recipe for chaos with diverse teams, according to a 2004 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.As sensitive as presidential candidates are to the tiniest shifts in public opinion, they can be shockingly obtuse about problems in their own organizations. But even an excellent politician can crash and burn without the right support from a well-oiled team. Remember: In business you can come in second or third and still be successful, but not in politics.

Michael S. Malone ’75, MBA ’77 is a writer, producer, entrepreneur, and the world’s first daily tech reporter. He teaches professional writing in the Department of English. Rich Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes. They are the authors of Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations. They wrote this piece, under a different title, for the Wall Street Journal. Read Malone’s feature essay, “Silicon Valley Story,” in the Summer 2015 issue of Santa Clara Magazine.

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