01/29/2013 09:10 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Building a Winning Top Team: Lessons From Obama's Cabinet Picks

The beginning of President Obama's second term seems an appropriate time to look at what makes a winning top team. Four years ago, he conceived of his Cabinet as a "team of rivals," taking his inspiration from Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling biography of Abraham Lincoln. Just as Lincoln appointed former rivals for the presidency to his Cabinet in 1860, Obama appointed former Democratic presidential competitor Hillary Clinton as his first Secretary of State. In 2008 he told Time magazine, "I don't want to have people who just agree with me. I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone."

By contrast, Obama's second-term appointments thus far appear to place an emphasis on personal familiarity and extensive interaction, as suggested by his replacement choices to head the State, Treasury and Defense Departments. All three appointees -- John Kerry, Jack Lew and Chuck Hagel, respectively -- are trusted allies.

Whether a chief executive sits in the White House, corporate headquarters or elsewhere, having a top leadership team of highly competent professionals to execute key strategic and policy goals is absolutely critical to mission success. Obama's Cabinet choices, then and now, raise a broader question about top team formation and efficacy. For example, does the Team of Rivals model, with team members including ideological contrarians and former competitors, yield superior results? Also, how does a leader's own personality affect top team selection, interpersonal dynamics and overall productivity?

Let's take a closer look at some of the benefits and risks of the Team of Rivals model. One commonly cited advantage is that an assembly of talented but independent thinkers can prevent "groupthink" from adversely impacting critical decisions. The term "groupthink" refers to the psychological phenomenon where a highly cohesive group opts for harmony over disagreement, thereby limiting constructive discussion and identifying all available options. It is generally considered a liability to overall decision and planning quality because the chief executive does not hear differing opinions and points of view from team members.

On the surface then it would appear that leaders are better served by the diversity of perspectives and agendas that a team of rivals provides. This includes the benefit President Obama identified prior to his first term of moving outside his personal comfort zone and viewpoint. Top team members across organization type typically are recruited for their relevant expertise, professional experience and network of valuable relationships. Leaders who include contrarian and controversial advisors in their inner circle tend to value original and dissenting opinions. They see danger in surrounding themselves with "yes men." As General George Patton once said, "If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."

However, there can be a down side to having a top team composed of smart, critical, and competitive thinkers. Interestingly, while smart people come together all the time and produce exceptional work, they also can come together as a team only to generate dysfunction and subpar performance. We know this from pioneering studies on team dynamics and performance conducted by British management researcher Meredith Belbin in the 1970s and 80s.

Belbin discovered unexpectedly poor results with teams formed of people who had sharp, analytical minds and high mental ability. He dubbed these teams of smart people "Apollo teams," as his research coincided with the American lunar expeditions. In case after case of team-based assignments, he found that Apollo teams often finished near the bottom, compared to teams that possessed less individual and collective intellectual firepower. The Apollo teams' failures were attributed to their excessive debating style, their over-investment in their own individual point of view, and their inability to come to consensus and reach timely decisions. In other words, they could not execute.

There are valuable lessons here for leaders who favor the Team of Rivals model. Belbin found that Apollo teams could be successful under certain circumstances. Of prime importance was the team leader's personality. Successful Apollo team leaders focused attention on setting objectives and priorities, and on shaping the way team effort was applied collaboratively. They were confident, "big picture" people who could hold their ground against domineering individuals without being domineering themselves.

Behavioral research shows that teams of very talented individuals can perform poorly when they possess similar traits, behavioral styles, or biases. For example, they may share the same blind spots, or they may tend to compete, rather than cooperate, with each other. Consequently, diversity in members' personalities, backgrounds and perspectives is a distinct advantage in creating a winning top team, regardless of organizational specifics.

In shaping his second-term Cabinet, President Obama has the benefit of drawing on more established working relationships to fill vacancies. While he has reached across the Congressional aisle to nominate a Republican, former Senator Chuck Hagel, as Secretary of Defense, this action largely has been regarded as the appointment of a likeminded ally, not a rival. It remains to be seen how the president will fully address the issue of top team diversity.

Susan Battley is Founder and Chief Executive of Battley Performance Consulting, specializing in leader and boardroom effectiveness through brilliant execution. She is a leadership psychologist, author and speaker, with doctorates in psychology (PsyD) and economic history (PhD). "Fast Focus on Success," her radio program on leadership and career excellence was commended by the Clinton White House. Battley helps world-class leaders and boards execute brilliantly in the areas of CEO-board optimization, executive selection and integration, succession planning, senior team performance, and strategic change and organization culture. She is a founding fellow of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard's affiliate McLean Hospital and a past board member of the Institute of Management Consultants, New York. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSusanBattley.