The study of leadership over the last two centuries has focused on one central figure to explain success, failure, or change within organizations and society: the individual leader at the top. It started with the Great Man Theory, a 19th-century idea that asserted great men (heroes) had decisive historical impacts due to their natural attributes; think Napoleon, Rousseau, and Martin Luther. Our early assessment of leadership argued that to be an effective leader, one must possess a select set of traits.
The issue with this model, and what more recent research reveals, is that the individual leader at the top is only one of four necessary and important factors in this multi-directional social influence process we call leadership. Leadership involves a leader, those being led, the specific situation, and a particular task that must be accomplished. The leader is absolutely important. Leaders influence others by providing purpose, direction and motivation; they have the responsibility to accomplish the task and they implement change necessary to do so, but the leader is only one factor and not sufficient when considered alone. As other factors change, such as those being led or the environment they act in, the leader may have to adjust style and approach. This is the challenge with our society’s romance of past leaders. At the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, for example, the campus is decorated with over a half-dozen statues of famed graduates and stakeholders in establishing the Academy. The mere existence of these stone figures inherently communicates to current cadets, “be like this man and you will be a great leader too.” Unfortunately, it does not account for the drastically changing leadership factors of those being led, the very different situations leaders face today, and ever-evolving and more complex tasks we face today.
Effective 21st century leadership requires a “shared leadership” approach, where leaders leverage and operate within teams (and teams of teams) to accomplish a mission and tasks. GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal argues this in two of his popular books, Teams of Teams and Leaders: Myth and Reality. It is also critical for military units to successfully operate under the U.S. Army’s Mission Command philosophy. A shared, team approach to leadership is essential today for a few reasons:
- Individual leaders cannot possess all of the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in today’s operating environments defined by their volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).
- It is impossible for individual leaders to maintain all of the expert knowledge of their team’s capabilities and assets. With saturation of the cyber domain and ever-evolving technology into everything we do, it is almost impossible for young, tactical level leaders like Army platoon leaders to be experts in all of the capabilities and equipment they are responsible for bringing to the fight. Leaders today must rely on others within their teams to be the masters needed to operationalize and integrate all of the capabilities resident within their formations.
- The extremely high volume of knowledge and information as well as volume of activities that occur within an organization day-to-day now make it infeasible for individual leaders to be the sole source of information processing and decision-making. More than ever before, leaders need advisors, staff, and/or an “inner-circle” to process, decide, and act.
Exceptional Teams: Truth and Development
There are a number of qualities that separate exceptional teams from others; common ones include shared responsibility, alignment on purpose, high communication, and being task and future focused. There are two that are surprisingly not discussed as often and are themes throughout this series:
- Truth and accountability. In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle states, “One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.” I normally describe this as a team where everyone is committed to sharing truth in love with one another; we all need the truth to improve self-awareness and thus our performance, but we must do so out of a wellspring of love for others with a desire to make them (and thus our team) better. Such truth in love takes time and trust though. We must earn the right to speak truth into others’ lives. For example, Gregg Popovich, famed San Antonio Spurs coach, was well-known for delivering two things routinely to his players: he’ll tell them the truth with no B-S and then he’ll love them to death.
- Emphasis on deliberate development of their people. The basic nature of this shared and teams approach to leadership requires leaders to deliberately and extensively invest in the development of their people. Leaders of teams cannot view their task solely as delivering a service or product, but also on delivering better decision-makers within the team. Leaders must be dedicated to the deliberate development of their people, creating the 2nd and 3rd generations of leaders to ultimately replace them. This is inherent in continuously promoting talent management models like the U.S. military; leaders are responsible for developing their subordinates, preparing those emerging leaders to assume their positions after them in a few short years.
Clarity on the Outputs of Effective Teams
A team is organized to learn something (research, investigations) or to accomplish a specified task. Its scope and timeline can vary extensively, considering short-term project teams all the way to ones that provide an enduring capability or service to an organization. A team’s effectiveness is almost always dependent on its performance, which is the degree it accomplishes its assigned task(s).
However, as leaders who are truly committed to the development of our people, I challenge that singular measure of effectiveness. I believe leaders should consider a team’s outputs along three different lines.
Performance. Is the team accomplishing its tasks? This is the easy and common team effectiveness metric; it is the reason the team exists. It’s the foundational output; often, no other output matters if this one is not being met. However, there is an issue with this being the only team output considered. In order to achieve the desired results, many leaders often resort to transactional or toxic approaches. To accomplish a time-bound task or to perform during a defined rating period, leaders can get the desired results, but leave the team and their people in shambles after. This is why leaders must consider and attend to the other two team outputs.
Team Member Satisfaction. Is the team satisfying, retaining, and developing talented people? Team members’ satisfaction, morale, and esprit de corps matter. Talent must be developed. Then, that talent must be retained. There are many team motivation and hygiene factors that contribute to this, but are often ignored by leaders. Many topics explored in this series point back to ensuring our peoples’ satisfaction on the team.
Team Viability. Is the team likely to survive and thrive in the long term? Sustaining the team and its performance over time is also extremely important. Teams may go through seasons of performance, but leaders must leverage issues like innovation, organizational change, continued training and development, and even attracting new talent to ensure enduring survival and success.
Looking at the Rest of the “Shared Leadership” Series
The following three parts to this Shared Leadership Series looks at a few important aspects of team effectiveness and development. Though we cannot address all of the important pieces of team effectiveness and development in a short series, we focus on a few topics necessary for leaders to be conscious of within their teams. The rest of this series covers:
- Three essential team culture artifacts to target: developing trust within our teams through psychological safety, a learning-orientation, and decision-making and organizational justice.
- Other important leader considerations such as team cohesion and the relationship between power, authority, and influence.
- The “GRPI” model of team development as a culminating model for leaders to conceive their team’s development as well as a way to diagnosing team dynamics and friction.
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