René-Antoine Houasse's painting Minerve et Arachne

How do I know if I’m on a genius team?

You won’t. At least, you probably won’t at the time. It took Thomas Clarkson and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade 51 years to see slavery eradicated in the British Empire. The WHO’s Smallpox Eradication Unit worked on their problem for 14 years. The Apollo Program moon-landing team knew in 8 years. But in general, there is an element of humility necessary: you pick a great problem, and work to solve it. That’s all. History will decide whether your team was up to the task.

It’s not a very satisfying answer. All three teams mentioned didn’t know at the outset they’d be successful– conventional wisdom was that they wouldn’t. And they had many setbacks along the way, even right up until the end. Success wasn’t assured. Big problems take courage, creativity, and persistence– courage to choose a large problem that needs solving in the first place, creativity to work on it in new productive ways, and persistence to see the task through in the face of setbacks and criticism.

All these teams were not arrogant about their abilities– they knew they might fail in very public ways. They placed themselves in a place of learning, and sought help from many sources. They admitted their mistakes. They used other peoples’ ideas if they were better than theirs. They changed course after setbacks so they could keep making progress. They had an accurate– not overestimated or underestimated– sense of their own abilities. And they kept the focus on the problem they were solving, not on themselves.

Humble doesn’t mean humiliation– it just means having a right-sized view of oneself and one’s place in the world. The Manual of Character Strengths and Virtues says humility is associated with these characteristics:

  • an accurate (not underestimated) sense of one’s abilities and achievements
  • an ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations
  • openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice
  • keeping one’s abilities and achievements in perspective
  • relatively low focus on the self or an ability to "forget the self"
  • appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world

So while we can keep the idea of a genius team in our minds– that we want to be on a team that is unusually courageous, unusually creative, unusually persistent, unusually effective– we need to keep a light touch about it and not let it get to our heads. And we especially need to understand that as leaders or members of any team, we’re not special or blessed in any way– we’re just regular humans.

Being on an effective team is power. Power can lead to hubris and even the ancients knew what problems hubris brings. Great teams– and great team members– embody humility.

This is part of the book Summoning Genius.