One of the many myths of leadership is that a team is only as good as its leader. That’s not, strictly speaking, the case. There is plenty of research to show that if you take a team of brilliant, talented people and give them a poor leader, the results will rarely be impressive. But on the other hand, a top-performing team or business is never successful purely because of its leader. A leader needs a good team, and a good team needs a leader. It’s a true collaboration – but if a leader finds themselves with a poor team and does nothing about it, they only have themselves to blame.
The management writer Jim Collins talks about team building in terms of ‘getting the right people on the bus’. As analogies go, it’s a great one. Last month we talked about the importance of setting a vision, or direction, for an organisation. What Collins argues is that while it is the leader’s role to decide where the bus is going and how it’s going to get there, there’s little point is setting out until the right people are on the bus, in the right seats.But what do we mean by the ‘right’ people? It stands to reason that anyone recruited by a leader should be competent and able. If an organisation recruits the best, others will want to join in order to work with the best, and will be self-motivated because they want to impress their peers (and their leader). But building a great team, and getting them to perform at their best together, takes a lot more than finding people with the best technical skills.Back in the 1980s, the British academic Dr Meredith Belbin identified a phenomenon in team dynamics that he labelled ‘the Apollo Syndrome’. In an experiment, a team of individually brilliant scientists and mathematicians were brought together to solve a problem. Based on their experience and collective knowledge, this team should have easily outstripped every other team, and yet the group failed spectacularly - they argued between themselves about the best course of action, had trouble making collective decisions and failed to co-ordinate their actions.
Belbin’s experiment is taken as a warning that it’s not always a good idea to form a team from the most technically adept people available. The technical explanation is that the best-performing teams tend to consist of task-related roles (which get a particular job done) and relationship-related roles (which look for common ground between team members and keep the team together). If either set dominates, the team will perform badly.All this helps to explain why modern leaders need outstanding people skills and a high degree of emotional intelligence. In order to build a great team a leader needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of those around him or her, and seek out new people who will fill in the gaps and complement strengths. But that’s not all – the leader must also create an environment for success and provide the motivation that will fuel the team’s performance. All in all, it’s a tall order.
The leadership writer Warren Bennis has spent a significant proportion of his life studying teamwork and the factors that set apart successful companies. He describes successful teams as ‘great groups’ and has identified ten principles that he believes these teams have in common. At the centre of these principles is a common vision – an inspiring target, set by the leader, which the team will strive to attain – and trust. Every member of the team trusts the others to do their job properly, and no-one wants to let the others, or their leader, down.
Ultimately, a good leader will have the courage and confidence to step back and let their team get on with the job, leaving plenty of space for initiative. That requires a high degree of trust between the leader and team (as well as more than a little courage on the part of the leader). A valuable tactic in encouraging this atmosphere of trust, developed by Sir Clive Woodward when he was coach of the England rugby team in the run-up to their World Cup win in Australia in 2003, was to delegate responsibility for setting the rules of behaviour to the team.
The idea came out of Woodward’s first meeting with the team and coaches at their training camp. Each day began with a 10am meeting and on that day, the players trickled in slowly, some on their mobile phones. The meeting eventually began 15 minutes late. Rather than express his irritation, Woodward quietly explained his vision that England would become the best rugby team in the world, and prove it by winning the World Cup. He then asked the players to come up with a set of behavioural rules that were fitting of the best team in the world.
What the players came up with – everyone should be at meetings 10 minutes early, and mobile phones were restricted to the players’ bedrooms and cars – were far stricter than anything management would have tried to impose on them. These became known as ‘teamship rules’, were rigorously self-monitored by the players, and became a matter of pride for the entire team. Once a leader has gathered together the right people for the bus, the journey can begin in earnest. But the work has only just begun. In future columns we will discuss how leaders motivate their people and encourage them to produce their best, every day.