Does your dream team need a bad boy?
In a recent interview, famous basketball player David Robinson said the following about contemporary Isiah Thomas being snubbed in the selection of the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” :
If you have a reputation and you take pride in your reputation as a ‘Bad Boy’ it kind of means people aren’t going to like you. […] I mean, I like Isiah fine, but can you be that surprised when people say ‘I don’t really want to play with the ‘Bad Boys?’
I was in the SEAL Teams, so I know what a high performing group looks like. A dream team consists of elite performers who are also elite at working together.
Conventional wisdom has it that chemistry between teammates can create a sum greater than its parts. As I detail in a recent podcast episode, this wisdom may be the rationale that underlies Robinson’s comment. The implication would be that ‘bad boys’ ruin team chemistry.
Meanwhile, as potential evidence of this idea, countless companies have adopted the “no asshole rule.” But implementation varies so much as to make this more “like guidelines” than an actual rule.
We have all seen teams of extremely talented individuals struggle against less talented but more cohesive opponents. Tune in to the next March Madness if you need more examples. But to what extent should we accept the conventional wisdom on team chemistry?
Ironically in light of Robinson’s remarks, the NBA is the prime example of how tolerating assholes can be a business model. It is widely accepted by fans and teams alike that an amazing pro hoops star can be a jerk to his teammates and the world — and still win games. (Not to mention, does anyone who watched the borderline-violent domination by USA basketball in the 1992 Olympics believe that Isiah Thomas’ presence would’ve endangered victory?!)
I suggest the following thought experiment:
Can a “bad boy” actually add extra value to a team (i.e. greater than his skill alone)? And, if so, is this effect greater than the benefits ascribed to chemistry?
This will help us answer more practical questions like what flavors of bad-boyness are there, whether we’re underappreciating bad-girlness, how teams might benefit (if at all) from either, how this benefit might differ in particular situations, and whether there is an optimum proportion of badditude within a team.
The boon from the bane
I used to have to bail people out of jail on a regular basis when I served aboard a naval warship. Every officer and senior enlisted did, some of them monthly. Answering questions for NCIS about your people was not uncommon. By the way, trust me, the real NCIS is far more boring and far less attractive than the TV version — unless you’re into old, overweight, impatient white males.
Notably, the folks my fellow leaders and I would retrieve on such visits with local law enforcement were exclusively poor performers in their jobs. On the other hand it is interesting that many of these sailors would be perfectly amiable and seldom exhibited attitude toward higher-ups or caused conflict with their peers.
So we should first set aside the (very few as a percentage) sailors I bailed out for DUIs or domestic disturbance calls. If we limit ourselves to these kinds of “bad boys,” the thought experiment will be over in a hurry.
The teammates I’m talking about are the converse case: high performers who have what we’ll overgeneralize as simply attitude problems. Isiah Thomas was undisputably a high performer on the court, but his attitude was legend.
Beyond the military phase of my career, I have seen numerous teams across a number of industries and company sizes. The fact is that there are actually times when a disruptive personality can lead to better team outcomes. Occasionally there is a yin and yang of badness. Bad boys can offer the following services:
- Call out underperformers
- Escalate issues to leadership
- Protest unfairness (sometimes playing the victim, but the point stands)
- Spur action
- Increase diversity of opinions
- Rally the rest of the team (often against them)
- Behave in ways that provide teachable moments to leadership and the team to solidify values and norms
- Take ‘the heat’ off of the rest of the team
Two things are ironic about the list above. First, many of the “services” are in reality unintended consequences. Second, only the most reflective leaders will see these benefits for what they are, especially in real time.
Cowboys vs. outlaws
I’m not sure why, but most of the movie bad guys I can think of these days are more charismatic than the heroes. Of course, some movies are unabashed apologies for villainy. Take the Young Guns franchise for example. While Emilio Estevez does a great job playing Billy the Kid, the entire gang is charming.
The thing is that those who press the boundaries and challenge authority do have charismatic power. Perhaps that quality actually improves teamwork.
Navy SEALs have historically had a reputation for being cowboys. If the metaphor doesn’t resonate, the description basically implies a general disregard for risk and protocols.
I want to distinguish here between two types of “bad boys”: the cowboy and the outlaw. While I’m not endorsing wholesale the idea that SEALs are or should be cowboys, I do think that the cowboy is the best type of bad boy in an organization. They are passionate, persistent, calm under pressure, and blunt. They might think all the rules don’t apply to them, but they’re careful to not break the important ones or endanger the mission. More than that, they aren’t necessarily poisonous to the team. On the contrary, they can often enhance esprit de corps.
Welcome to the big leagues
Like most of life’s important questions, we could look to Major League for answers. In that movie they begin as a motley crew with a fair number of personalities that would never survive the David-Robinson dream-team cut. At the end they not only win, but each pair of guys who started out hating each other end up hugging it out.
Of course that’s fiction. However, therein lie some kernels of wisdom. You can start with team members who aren’t deemed dream-team material in the beginning and end up with a high-performing unit. As fellow SEAL brethren Jocko Willink and Leif Babin say in their book Extreme Ownership, “no bad teams, just bad leaders.” After all, military leaders almost never get to choose who works for them.
Maybe it’s also worth considering whether one strong personality deserves another. Perhaps a team is more balanced when there are two or more poles. Further, the truth might be that you’re better off with an entire team of cowboys than just one or two.
I’m of course raising more questions than answers. Strict logic and exact science are rare when it comes to leadership (read: dealing with humans).
If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: You might be taking a huge risk by going out looking for a bad boy to join your team. But if you already have one, figure out if they’re poisonous or not. Then either cut them loose, or find a way to harness their energy for good.
Of course, maybe I’m reading too much into David Robinson’s explanation. Obviously if we have a choice to work with an asshole or not, we’d all prefer the ‘not’ option (all else being equal). That includes the people tasked with leading so-called bad boy, in this case the coaches. And especially people like the trainers and waterboy.
Especially the waterboy.
About the author: Sri hosts The Warrior Poet podcast, a show on the philosophy of leadership based on his experience in the SEAL Teams, at Harvard Business School, on Wall Street, and in tech. Shows every Monday. Follow him on Instagram @sri_the_warrior_poet and @sri_actually.
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