My Oxford college was noted mainly, I used to say, for its ability to go backwards faster than all the others. I was referring to its skill on the river, and that odd phenomenon, at which it excelled, of eight people going backwards as fast as they can without speaking to each other, steered by the one person who can't row - a typical example of an English team, I would joke. I stopped joking after an Olympic oarsman pointed out that it was the perfect example of a team, for how could they go backwards so fast without communicating unless they had great confidence in each other's skill, trusted everyone to do his best, knew what the goal was and were totally committed to achieving it whatever the inconveniences or personal sacrifices?
It was intriguing, therefore, to see the same message emerging from the film True Blue, which was filmed in the self-same college. The film would seem too corny to be true, except that it was true. After Oxford's defeat by Cambridge in the annual boat race, some star-studded American rowing champions are drafted in for the next year's race, as temporary students. They try to take over the running of the boat and the preparations for the race, effectively mutiny, but are outfaced and dropped from the crew. With only 25 days remaining the coach has to train up a fresh crew, but he builds a team and they win the race.
'Eagles don't flock' was one of Ross Perot's trademark phrases in the last two American presidential campaigns, arguing that only a gutsy individualism made a nation great. It's a theme hammered away at in the film, with the Americans and their supporters convinced that the eight best individuals will make the best team. It wouldn't matter that every one of those individuals was, if he were honest, doing it for his own sake and to boost his own career. In the end, however, as all managers know well, a good team is more than the sum of its individuals, and prima donnas can sometimes do more harm than good to the common cause.
Yet it is prima donnas that we seem to want these days. One effect of the rise of the professional in all aspects of business is that the best individuals now have access to a global marketplace. This gives the elite few a choice of rewards far in excess of those available to people who are almost but not quite as good. The very best lawyers, the cream of the traders, even the best managers, are now like sports stars, wanted everywhere, at any price. Asked how one member of a finance house could possibly be worth the [pounds]7 million bonus he was awarded this year, the chief executive explained that he had earned the firm [pounds]42 million in extra profits. If his work had not been so highly rewarded, the argument went, that individual would have gone elsewhere in due course. …