Teamwork and the Virtue of Independence

If we are to believe people like President Obama who famously said: “You didn’t build that”, individual accomplishment is insignificant; only as a group we can build something. While collaboration, trade, and learning are great benefits of living in a society and we can often achieve more by hiring others and working together, such collaboration is of no value unless all parties are independent thinkers and doers. Ask anyone who has ever hired, managed, or worked with a follower: a person who blindly follows others instead of thinking for himself, goes through the motions of a job, does not form opinions of his own based on his evaluation of facts but merely parrots the majority view or what the boss tells him. Such a person cannot offer much to others, nor is he capable of achieving rational values for himself—even if he were able to identify them.

The idea that teamwork can be successfully performed without independent thinkers is a collectivist myth. Some leaders may think that it is fine to have just themselves as a leader who drives the business with employees who obediently follow their orders—but they are wrong. In fact, best teams are those where all the members are independent. Independence does not imply inability to collaborate as a team—it is a requirement of productive collaboration.  Blind followers do not have any original ideas to contribute to the group’s efforts. They are unable to detect mistakes or problems in the group’s plans or practices. They may be able to perform routine tasks according to instructions, but the moment a problem occurs and a decision needs to be made, they are paralyzed. A contractor friend once became so exasperated by workers with an unthinking follower mentality that he started advertising for “thinking carpenters.”  A team building a home, designing a new product, operating on a patient, or trying to achieve any other rational goal cannot afford a member who does not think and act for himself.

Independence, defined by Leonard Peikoff as “a primary orientation to reality, not to other men,” is a virtue in the moral code of rational egoism because it is in a person’s self-interest to adhere to facts first hand, as opposed to follow others blindly. You can achieve your values—a soundly built house, a successful new product, a cured patient—only by adhering to facts, comprehended by you, and not by following someone else’s possibly mistaken instructions without thinking. Many flawed products: leaky silicone breast implants, exploding Goodyear tires, Toyotas with sticky gas pedals, would not have made it to the market had more independent thinkers (or even one) worked in the companies manufacturing them and raised an alarm.

The virtue of independence requires also independence in action: supporting yourself with the work of your own mind, as opposed to being a parasite on others. Only a person who earns his own living and pays his own way is free to pursue his self-interest: his own happiness.

The virtue of independence has a particular relevance in business: it is a fundamental requirement of innovation, one of the most sustainable sources of competitive advantage for business firms. Only independent thinkers, whether working alone or in a team, can come up with new ideas, products, and processes. Only independent thinkers adhering to reality first hand can create the idea for the steam engine, the electric light bulb, the overnight package delivery of Federal Express, the laser technology to perform corrective eye surgery, the search engine of Google, the iPhone and the iPad, and countless other innovations that have made their makers millionaires and their companies leaders in their industries. Independence is a tool of self-interest, in life and in business—and it is a necessary tool of effective teamwork.