The idiom for a person who acts alone is “lone wolf.” (Lone Wolf was also a Kiowa chief, and Lone Wolf McQuade was a character played by Chuck Norris in the 1983 film of the same name.)
I started thinking about lone wolves when a friend told me her hiring problem. She posted a job listing for a fundraiser – a very good, executive-level job – and everyone who applied kept talking about how they work well in teams.
Interviewer: “What’s the first thing you would do?”
Many candidates: “I’d assemble a great team!”
Interviewer: “No. Your team includes this receptionist. She’s right here. Try again.”
It was clear from the job posting that the person hired would need to “identify new sources of funding and raise adequate funds to enable the organization to carry out its work,” along with various responsibilities in grant writing, managing a budget and overseeing audits, and all kinds of other tasks that don’t involve “hiring people to do the work for you” or “having long meetings with your peers in which you discuss via groupthink how to do the work so you can avoid taking full responsibility for the outcome.”
And yet, repeatedly, candidates would talk about their teamwork abilities, and be met with, “Um, no. You have to actually do the work yourself.”
Ultimately, my friend was able to hire someone fabulous, but only after weeding through lots and lots of team players who cannot function independently.
When Teamwork is Valuable
If you’re going to get an MBA, you’re probably going to spend at least the next decade of your career working in a large company (how else are you going to pay off the degree?)
Business schools are heavily focused on preparing people to work in large corporations. Thus, much of the structure of business school itself mimics this: you will have a “cohort”, and you will join study groups, and you will get along with your classmates despite your many differences. You will be graded at least in part on class participation and group projects.
The larger and more established the company, the more important teamwork probably is. An executive at a major consulting firm told me that managing relationships was his main job, and the actual work was incidental.
If no one around you ever advocates a strong and unusual course of action, does an entire project alone, puts her name on the end project, and takes responsibility if the project fails, then your doing so is either brilliant or foolish. It’s hard to say.
In Bullish: Social Class in the Office I talked about the WASPy, milquetoast way people speak in corporate America. (I love working with contractors because I can easily tell them, “I do not want to pay you anymore because you are not generating results,” and it’s not some big political issue with someone I have to share a bathroom with every Monday through Friday.)
If you can’t call out an idea as a fucking stupid waste of money, it’s pretty likely that a bunch of people will go along with just such an idea (especially if the boss likes it), knowing that no one will really take the hit when the idea reaches its inevitable disastrous conclusion.
There are benefits and drawbacks to such a work environment. In the U.S., big companies are the easiest path to health insurance.
And if your EQ is way higher than your IQ – and you couldn’t produce anything of value if I locked you alone in a room full of books, computers, and sandwiches for a million years – then you’d sure as hell better try to attach yourself to a team.