In our article on Leadership in the 21st Century, we talked about what type of leader is likely to succeed and keep their organisation at the top of its game.  We proposed that this should be a leader who is authentic, honest and open, not afraid to make mistakes or admit weaknesses, who leads from the front and who can work with a good pace.

But no-one succeeds alone, and a great leader will need the best possible team behind them.

Thinking back through my own career, I can easily identify two inspirational leaders, people I trusted implicitly to do the right thing, each time with an outstanding team.  Yes, we argued.  And sometimes we fought.  But ultimately, we found a way through because of the way in which we worked together.  And I can also pick out two appalling leaders.  One was an individual whose mantra was “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  He lost his job when customers voted with their feet.  The second was a more interesting case.  This was a person who was not confident, needed a team of people who told him constantly how great he was, was a bully and severely punished mistakes made by others.  He was replaced when he consistently failed to meet any and all targets set by the organisation.

In the former case, my team always had each other’s backs.  In the latter, every team member would have gladly thrown any one of their colleagues under a bus to achieve their own agenda.

I guess that many people reading this will have had similar experiences.

The interesting thing is, the latter team could have been a great team if the leader had been able to be authentic, open and honest, admit when he didn’t know stuff and trust his team.  But he did none of these.  He was obsessed with himself, so all of the team members followed a similar way of working.

Teams come together for many reasons, some newly employed for a specific task, some created from existing employees for a new project, some working at the same site, some geographically distant.

Henry Ford said of teams: “Coming together is a start; keeping together is progress; working together is a success”.

Where does the leader start?

In putting a team together, so often the starting point is:  what are the skills that are needed?  But Simon Sinek[1], in his book on inspirational leaderships makes the crucial point: “If you hire people just because they can do a job they will work for your money; but if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you, with blood sweat and tears.”

If the team has the right skills, do they also have the right values, values that are in line with the leader’s values and the organisation’s values?  Skills can be learned, values are inherent.  If they don’t have the values don’t hire them.  It’s more trouble than it’s worth.

But what about the team made up from current employees?  Hopefully, they are already successful because they have values. But it doesn’t do any harm, when bringing the team together, to begin with, a reminder about those values, about the expectation of team working and mutual support.  To confirm that it’s OK to disagree, discuss and argue, but that mutual respect should always prevail and no-one has an agenda bigger than that of the organisation.

Graham Wilson[2] suggests that a great team has three vital ingredients:  team spirit, team skills and team process, all of which combine together to produce Team Health.  Team spirit being clarity of purpose, buy-in and pride.  Team skills being “the right people with the right skills playing to a position.”  Team processes “effective and aligned ways of working” and team health being “the energy and endurance to sustain high performance.”

Once they have the team in place, the first job is to ensure that each member has a clear vision of the purpose, the goals and what success will look like.  And it’s the leader’s job to ensure that they have the confidence to see the goals as a positive challenge in an environment in which they can succeed, both as an individual and as a team.  A session or two of diagnostics, in which team itself explores all of these issues, with both individual and team feedback, will secure not only trust and respect for and in each other but in the leader,  who has deferred to the collective at such an early stage.

Group of five creative workers giving each other high-five with big smile on face, successful team performance, finishing touch.

Once the team has a clear vision of what it must achieve, and how it is going to go about it, the work can begin.  It then becomes the role of the leader to ensure that the initial momentum is maintained and to deal with conflict swiftly and fairly.

One of the functions of the leader gaining mention and momentum at the present is that of “servant”, which is an interesting concept, but when examined, is a new name for an already recognised skill.

This is an easy-to-recognise attribute in terms of customers, but what about as head of a team?  In what way can the leader serve their team?  This is more about attitude than an attribute.  In serving the team, the leader is demonstrating that they value the team together and individually to the point where they will ensure that they are all able to feel appreciated, have the opportunity to develop and are given the resources, information and commitment needed to ensure that they can perform at the highest level.  This is a leader who does not make appointments for the team to meet with them, whose door is always open and whose company is enjoyed and welcomed by the team members.

Along the way, there will be both obstacles and opportunities.

Overcoming the obstacles faced by both individuals and the team will put the leader in the role of mentor and/or coach.  This particular aspect of leadership, helping individuals to have the confidence to find their own solutions, to practice those solutions and be supported if they do not succeed, is a great way to build trust. 

We will come back to the subject of mentoring and coaching in our next article, but the building of trust is worthy of further examination.

Joseph Folkman[3] of Zenger Folkman proposes that there are three pillars of trust:

  1. Relationships:  Put simply, we trust people that we like, so building positive relationships increases trust.
  2. Knowledge and Expertise:  We trust people that can provide answers and give insight.  They can solve problems.  Using the leader’s knowledge and expertise, as mentor or coach, can build trust.
  3. Consistency:  Walk the talk.

To keep a team motivated over a long period of time, through the ups and downs, the successes and the mistakes is no small challenge.  But for the leader who is confident that they have the right team, the journey will be easier and more fun.

We began this article with a description of the good, the bad and the ugly.  According to Folkman:

“Having worked on both high-performance teams and teams from hell I know the difference is huge.  Life is not good when you are in the team from hell. That experience can infect other parts of your life in a very negative way.  Life is good on a high-performance team and we all deserve to be part of one”.

There will always be bad days.  We can only learn from them.  But whatever the problems we face, we all deserve to go to work excited and go home motivated to start afresh the next day.  That’s the role of the Leader.

[1] Simon Sinek “Start with Why” 2011

[2] Graham Wilson, “Leadership Laid Bare” 2018

[3] Leadership 2018