By Stephen Balzac
May 20, 2010
Recently, someone told me that, “We don’t need leadership training. We’re all leaders.” When I asked how well they worked together and actually got things done, she then said, “Well, you know, leaders all have good ideas. We have some strong personalities. It can take a while.”
Overall, she was half right. Just because someone is a leader, that doesn’t mean they automatically have good ideas. In fact, only poor leaders think that they only have good ideas. However, she was correct in that they didn’t need leadership training. Rather, what they needed was membership training.
If leadership training is learning how to be a better team leader, then membership training is learning how to be a better team member. Paradoxically, it’s usually leaders who most need membership training.
A leader is a funny creature. We view the leader as the source of so much of the group’s accomplishments, as though they had personally brought about all the team’s great achievements. Yet, we would not expect the captain of a baseball team to play all nine positions.
Fundamentally, the job of the leader is to create the structure and emotional safety that the group needs to succeed. A leader cannot do that single-handedly any more than the leader can build the products or provide the services of the team single-handedly. At one company, the best efforts of the VP of Engineering to create unity and a strong team were undermined by the passivity of the members.
A team without a leader cannot function efficiently. A leader without followers is just someone taking a walk. Despite this, leaders and teams frequently end up in conflict. The leader spends her time forcing the team to do their jobs, and the team spends its time not doing much of anything when the leader isn’t around to push them. Many people now believe that it is normal for teams and leaders to interact that way. Not true!
When leaders view themselves as members of the team, the team performs better. In surgical teams, those teams that were able to rapidly master new techniques were the ones where the chief surgeon trained with the rest of the team, worked with the team, and built strong, peer relationships. In the teams where the chief surgeon regarded himself as the expert and the rest of the team as support staff, mastery of new material was significantly lower or non-existent.
Whether you have too many, or too few, chiefs, recognize that the leader is nothing special. The leader may simply be the one person who has a clearly defined role and the best knowledge of the group’s objectives. Therefore:
-¢ It is the leader’s job to help the group focus its efforts, understand its goals, and figure out the best ways of moving forward. Remember, everyone will have ideas, but no one will initially know the best way of presenting them. The leader must facilitate that process.
-¢ It is also the leader’s job to help the group discuss and debate the best ways of doing things, not provide all the answers. If the leader provides all the answers, the rest of the chiefs will naturally and reasonably resent that. Instead, invite and encourage participation.
-¢ It is the job of the leader to build a sense of community or connection amongst all group members. No man is an island and no one is the center of the universe.
-¢ It is the job of the leader to help build the status of each person. When you have a lot of potential leaders, assigning some of them low status is a sure recipe for infighting and destructive competition.
Now, we come to a rather funny coincidence: it is the job of each group member to do exactly the same things as the leader: each member must act like a leader! When each member contributes to the building of the group structure, the group becomes stronger. Group members cannot sit back and let the leader do all the thinking, all the organizing, all the talking, or all the status building. The best way to build your own status is to build the status of those around you. The best way to get people to listen to your ideas is to listen to their ideas. The best way to get people to care about you is to care about them. The people who seek to be islands or the center of the universe may be physically present, but are not really connecting to the team.
In the end, the problem with many failed teams is not too many leaders. The problem is too few members.
Stephen Balzac is a consultant and professional speaker and president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses to increase revenue and build their client base. He is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development.”. Contact him at [email protected].