Historically, humanity’s largest steps have been accomplished not by individuals but by teams. When we look at what made teams successful in the past, we learn principles of teamwork to apply to teams today. Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, analyzed the traits of successful teams throughout history.
Let’s dive into this review of some of the most successful teams in history.
What Is a Team?
Physically, humans aren’t formidable. We don’t have sharp teeth or claws compared to other species. “How have we collectively become so deadly and dominant over our environment?” Ryne asked. “The answer has to do with teamwork.”
A team is defined by its interdependent parts. The actions that one person takes affect the outcomes for everyone else. Unlike groups, teams are made up of people who coordinate their efforts and who depend on each other for overall team success.
Some of the most notable historical examples of successful teams are the Carlisle Indians football team, the Ford Motor Company, and the Manhattan Project.
The Carlisle Indians
The Carlisle Indians, based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, played American football from 1883 to 1917 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). They had a combined record of 167 wins, 88 losses, and 13 ties.i They beat premier football programs, such as those of Ivy League schools and the US military academy.
Because the Carlisle Indians team was undersized compared to its competition, it relied on innovations and trick plays that had never been seen before, such as the hidden ball play. “Whenever this team goes up against juggernauts of the late 19th century and early 20th century, it’s quite a statement for them to be as successful as they were,” Blake pointed out.
The team also boasts two of the most famous names in early American football. Pop Warner was an innovative, record-setting coach. Jim Thorpe, arguably one of the best athletes of all time, was a football player and Olympic gold medalist.ii With such leaders as Warner and Thorpe, the Carlisle Indians overcame obstacles that many thought were impossible.
Why This Team Was Successful
Hogan’s research into high-performing teams has shown that strategic adaptability is a key indicator. “One core component of that is the team being supportive of experimentation and innovative pursuits,” Ryne observed. The Carlisle Indians’ ability to come up with new plays to trick defenses gave their team a critical advantage.
If you’re interested in exploring why some athletic teams are so effective, check out The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by sports journalist Sam Walker.
Ford Motor Company
The true story behind the 2019 film Ford v Ferrari is one of team success. Ferrari traditionally makes a finely tuned, handmade, elite machine, while Ford is famous for pioneering the assembly line. In 1963, Ford attempted to purchase Ferrari, which sparked an unofficial battle between the brands.
Ford executives built a team of designers, drivers, and other experts to design a racing vehicle that would humiliate Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a renowned international race. Racing legend Carroll Shelby and test driver Ken Miles collaborated with existing specialist teams within Ford to build a car to beat Ferrari.
By 1966, three Ford vehicles finished Le Mans in first, second, and third place. As Blake said, it’s a fascinating look at what it takes to build and fund a team for a specific quality objective.
Why This Team Was Successful
The Ford team had the right combination of people with the optimal mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities under a leader who provided effective direction.
Getting the right people in the right places—role clarity, in other words—is another key indicator of successful teams. “If people on the team don’t know what they’re supposed to do, that can cause a lot of conflict,” Ryne pointed out. “How does the team communicate? How does the team get along? Who does what on the team? That is really critical for team success.”
The Manhattan Project
The team involved in the Manhattan Project in the 1940s competed in an unofficial race to invent the first nuclear weapon. Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers directed the project. Nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer oversaw the project’s science side at the Los Alamos Laboratory.
Many smart, talented people coordinated their efforts across many locations over many years. Mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and manufacturers collaborated to obtain the raw materials and building factories to purify the uranium needed to build the atomic bomb. The team was under constant pressure to work with dangerous and costly materials with the objective to end the Second World War.
“The amount of coordination and the speed with which the team had to work is truly impressive,” Ryne said. “This team achieved something that no other team had achieved before.”
As to the ethics of the Manhattan Project, we discussed something similar in episode 21 with Michal Kosinski about big data. If a race is inevitable, being first is likely more desirable than being last.
Why This Team Was Successful
Team members understood what the mission was and were committed to it. Everybody had to be focused on the mission for the team to succeed.
Also critical was a supportive context. The government, private businesses, funding, and key leaders were all in place to make the goal a reality. Without the support and coordination provided by the executives, mission alignment would have been harder, if not impossible, to achieve.
Analyzing successful teams in history can give us insight into the complex dynamics of high-performing teams. “The team is a big space for learning, for innovation, and for us to improve as individuals and organizations,” Ryne said.
Listen to this conversation in full on episode 48 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!
- While we revere the football team for its many successes, we also acknowledge the destructive legacy of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The school’s history of forced assimilation and cultural genocide continues to be a source of pain and trauma for many indigenous families across at least 140 tribes.
- Jim Thorpe’s Olympic medals were reinstated on July 14, 2022.