The Ideal Team Player

Mike Holley

First Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County

While still in high school many years ago, I remember reading the “Great Man” theory of history. This theory claimed that the big events in history were primarily due to the actions of various “Great Men.” You know, Pericles, Caesar, Luther, Jefferson, Flavor Flav … I remember thinking how much that made Total Sense—until someone patiently explained to me that in fact it Did. Not. Make. Any. Sense.
    I remember teachers demonstrating that what really drives important events are the actions of groups of people working together in concert. I finally realized that the individual’s actions, though important, were very much secondary to those of the groups and all that they accomplished.
    Still, the romanticism and appeal of the “Great Man” myth remains, particularly for Americans and even more so for Texans. Don’t we all want to be the brave and bold hero in our own story rather than just an unsung cog in the uncaring machine? (Truthfully, we are probably somewhere in the middle.) And don’t we all want to make the greatest possible difference? Of course we do. At some point, though, we all realize that the best mechanism to achieve the greatest possible difference is working together with others. None of us can really truly “do it on our own,” and the secret to success is working on a team.
    Though I am sure you’ve heard it before, I hope the realization that teams are the key to success truly resonates with you. Teams matter: The real work flows from teams. Teams are the key. Teams.
    Now by “teams,” I don’t necessarily mean the office in its entirety. Instead, I mean the smaller teams of all sorts—the trial court team that works a docket, the trio of administrative assistants who input new cases into the system, the pair of investigators tasked with serving grand jury subpoenas, the solo DA and her trusted receptionist laboring to keep the county running smoothly, and so on. Anywhere and everywhere you look, you find teams. All of those teams matter—they matter a great deal.
    It makes sense, then, to think intently about teams—how they are formulated, how they work, and how we work within them. This is a challenging subject to be sure. To this end, a friend1 and fellow professional has provided me with a great help, and I, in turn, hope to pass that help on to you. That help comes in the form of a book recommendation: The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni.2

The Ideal Team Player
The Ideal Team Player is divided into two parts. Part One presents a “business fable” of a man thrust into a faltering family business and charged to make it all work. (Spoiler: He succeeds.)
    The fable portion moves along briskly and takes up about two-thirds of the short length of the book. Our hero, Jeff, ultimately has to decide what essential qualities are needed to create and maintain his successful team. Through some trial and error and, most significantly, vigorous intellectual exchanges with his coworkers, Jeff and his fellow leaders decide on three foundational virtues that an ideal team player must have—she must be humble, hungry, and smart. Part Two of the book explicitly explains those virtues. Here is a brief overview:3
    Humble: Humble people lack excessive ego or concerns about status. They point out the contributions of others and are slow to seek attention for their own—rather they seek the success of the team over self. They are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They neither put themselves above all others nor discount their own talents and contributions. Lencioni believes this to be the most important of the three virtues.
    Hungry: The hungry person wants to do more, learn more, and take on more responsibility. Hungry people are driven, diligent, and self-motivated. They are forward-thinking pursuers of excellence, and they hate to be thought of as slackers. They have a “manageable and sustainable commitment to doing a job well and going above and beyond when it is truly required,” as Lencioni puts it. As you can imagine, these are great people to have on a team, assuming the other virtues are also present. Lencioni thinks this virtue is the hardest to change.
    Smart: This term does not mean “intellectual” or “excessively intelligent,” but instead really means “people-smart.” Smart team members have a common sense about others. They pay attention to people. They ask good questions, listen to what others are saying, and stay engaged in conversations intently. Lencioni likens smarts to “emotional intelligence” but says that this virtue is a little simpler than that. These people “don’t say and do things—or fail to say and do things—without knowing the likely responses of their colleagues.” Lencioni contends that this virtue can be directly improved through coaching.
    So that’s the model. The operating assumption is that for any given job, you should look for the most competent individual who also possesses these qualities. Hire or assign people on the basis of these qualities, encourage and develop them in your employees, and, if absolutely necessary, use them as the standard to know when to invite people to “seek excellence elsewhere.”4

Truth in the model
The model is simple, logical, and just feels right. By way of authenticating the model, consider how these virtues operate in the negative. Here are some of Lencioni’s examples in that regard:
    Humble only: The Pawn. These people are nice, sure, but they don’t feel a need to get things done, nor are they able to work effectively with others. They lend very little to the team.
    Smart only: The Charmer. These people can “play the game” and generally don’t raise others’ ire, but they lack the humility to really care about people or about the team, and they don’t have hunger to really contribute (unless it makes them look good).
    Hungry only: The Bulldozer. These people cannot and will not get along with others, nor are they humble. But they sure get things done! Unfortunately, they also create plenty of problems for others in the process: They rub people the wrong way, they drive people off, they damage or weaken important relationships, and they burn themselves—and others—out.
    (Important aside: I think this may be the most common area of concern for trial lawyers.  Trial lawyers, especially prosecutors, absolutely need hunger, but it can work against them if not properly channeled.  Let me explain with a tortured and esoteric analogy:
    Sometimes we put up with a “great” trial lawyer—or investigator, legal assistant, receptionist, etc.—because he is so effective and knowledgeable in his area of responsibility. Unfortunately, some of these great trial lawyers are very, very difficult to be around. Think of them—and stay with me—like the war elephants of ancient times. The Carthaginians, rascals that they were, would line up these gigantic, armored beasts and send them trumpeting toward the lines of trembling Roman soldiers5 causing tremendous destruction and mayhem. Cheers and victories often followed. Not infrequently, though, those same elephants would turn and rampage along friendly lines, tearing formations (and bodies) apart. Chaos and tears would follow. Carthaginian privates would no doubt exclaim, “Fat lot of good that did us, lugging those elephants all the way to Italy!” and “Did you see how that elephant stomped our pal Doug into the mud?” and, of course, “Man, elephants produce a lot of crap.” Anyway, you see my point. Possibly.)
    Lencioni lays out other telling variants too: humble and hungry but not smart (the Accidental Mess-Maker); humble and smart, but not hungry (the Lovable Slacker); and hungry and smart but not humble (the Skillful Politician). All people we have known, currently know, and maybe have been ourselves.

Applications for the model
This is all interesting, perhaps, but what value is this model to the county or district attorney employee? Much in every way! For starters, the model helps with these important functions:
    Self-assessment: Regardless of our position in the office, each of us has an obligation to be the best possible team member we can be. This model provides a valuable tool to pursue that objective. As I read the book, I had to pause several times to say “ouch” and “I really need to work on that issue.” Others in our office had the same reaction and were (begrudgingly) appreciative. As you assess yourself against the model, you can identify areas where improvement is most needed and understand where your strengths and weakness lie.
    Hiring: “Humble, Hungry, Smart” provides a good framework to know whom to look for in the essential process of hiring. As I’m writing this, we are interviewing for a misdemeanor attorney. Should we hire the guy from Yale6 who has already tried a capital murder with his third-year bar card, clerked for every member of the United States Supreme Court, and will be posing later for the State Bar as they commission a statue of him on horseback to honor his extensive pro bono work?7 Yes? We should? Even if he’s not humble? Even if he is not smart? Well, we can certainly hire this guy, but at what costs long-term?
    Evaluation: The model gives us a clear standard to promulgate and a common language to use among leaders. For example, has Doug (an old Carthaginian name, as you know) demonstrated that he has the “smarts” to be in a supervisory position, or does he need additional training to learn how to better deal with people? If he’s not smart enough to supervise others, how can I communicate that to his next boss so that the right development occurs? Is Diane really “hungry,” or is she just coasting? If Jose resists coaching, is it because he is not “humble?”
    Coaching: The model allows us to identify and reinforce those behaviors that make our folks better team players. It also clarifies where we want to go and how to get there, benefits that are immensely helpful. The model is particularly useful to: 1) prepare junior members of the office to be leaders in the future, 2) identify and solve conflicts between coworkers, and 3) help earnest employees reach their full potential.

Warnings and uses for the model
As you work through the model, it would be completely reasonable to ask some questions. Can you really have an office filled with ideal team players? Can you personally meet the model’s expectations? Most importantly, does this model help us on a very practical, day-to-day basis?
    To the above questions: Yes—with some caveats.
    First, we must be realistic. The “ideal” team player is just that: ideal. We are all on a continuum on the spectrum of humble, hungry, and smart. The model gives us a target to shoot for, a standard to reach toward. None of us will ever meet that standard perfectly, and that is OK.
    Second, we have to be cautious and gracious. People are complicated. Life is complicated. The model shouldn’t be used simply to reduce others to a simplistic label,8 to force an artificial conformity,  to induce “group-think,” nor as a basis for gossip or division. The model should help build up people and teams, not tear them down.
    With those warnings in mind, we can certainly use the model to improve ourselves and to help others to improve. As an example of the latter, consider the prosecutor who wins an important and difficult trial. That prosecutor, if he is humble, can and should give fair and full credit to everyone else who lent a shoulder to the wheel to move the case to a successful resolution. If he does, that humility ought to be recognized, reinforced, and repeated by others. If he doesn’t share the credit, his failure of humility should also be addressed directly and professionally.
    When an investigator sends an angry email—one that has exactly the opposite effect intended, one that is not very “smart”—then an educational conversation needs to occur. Some coaching as to how the email was received, how it could have been worded, how the recipients understood the message, or how an in-person conversation might have been more effective would be appropriate.
    When an attorney seems to be lacking in hunger (which certainly ebbs and flows), some inquiry needs to happen. Is the attorney temporarily burned out? Is there something going on in his personal life that is sapping his focus at work? Is there a particular new area of the law that he could get behind, learn about, and champion? Is there an available leader or peer who could catalyze the attorney’s professional development? Or maybe is it time to hang up the spurs and do something else?
    The model is simple, and the application is challenging—but working with others will always be as challenging as it is necessary. The “Humble, Hungry, Smart” model helps on that front. It is one tool among many, not a magic wand to make everything and everyone perfect.
    So there it is—The Ideal Team Player. Given to me by a friend, and I now give it to you. I sincerely hope it will be helpful!


1  This friend, unlike some of my other friends, is not imaginary. His name is Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Culbreath of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. I’m grateful for him for his help here and for many other reasons as well.

2  The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues: A Leadership Fable. Patrick Lencioni, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand, 2016.

3  We have had about two dozen or so people read the book in our office—all of the senior leadership and hiring committee members. Most appreciated the use of the story before the explanation, but a few—our more “let’s get to it” personalities—found the story a distraction and needless delay. I personally thought it breathed life into the explanation in a very helpful way. Also, those other people are wrong. So wrong.

4  You could distill the message of the book into: No jackasses.

5  Likely “hastati,” essentially the “cannon (or elephant) fodder” of the Roman army during the time of Punic wars.

6  Or, as I like to think of it, the “Texas Tech of New Haven.”

7 This character is fictional. We’ve actually never had a Yale guy apply. We do have a Harvard Law graduate, however, and he’s both the ideal team player and an amazing attorney. His name is Joel Daniels.

8  One of the dangers to the model Lencioni discusses is that of labeling people too quickly or unfairly. This is a legitimate concern. No model can ever capture all the wild complexities of a human being. Labels can unnecessarily limit people, and they can certainly sting. I for one already bear the label “bald old guy with bad goatee.” I don’t know that my ego could stand to have another label added. But seriously, be very careful here.