The Team Leader

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The charisma of a leader is certainly a powerful asset for a growing business. We live in a time where superstar CEOs and startup founders enjoy a sort of celebrity status. There’s a lot to learn from them but pop culture focuses on one quality they all have in common: charisma. It makes for great stories — and maybe that’s why we gravitate to them — but young aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs should be wary. An organization that hinges on one persona makes its greatest asset its greatest vulnerability: what happens to the business if something happens to the leader?

Relying heavily on a few key individuals is like putting all your eggs in one basket. Consider your favorite sports team whose championship run dreams were dashed by an injury to a star player. Luckily, in the middle of the growing culture of business idols, sensible people have also spread the doctrine of sustainability. Speaking of sports, numerous championships across different sports have been decided by the depth of the winning team’s second-string.

I found that the best strategy for embedding sustainability into an organization is to build and lead it like a good team. It has become common to refer to an organization or its parts as teams, but not all of them have a truly team-oriented mindset. There are a few core elements of true teamwork that organizations leave out: (1) clear plans with clear roles, (2) a transparent and collaborative environment and (3) a team-first culture based on a unifying vision.

I learned during my time as a U.S. Army officer — and had it further drilled into me during my business career — that things rarely, if ever, go exactly as planned. Back-up plans are necessary for any number of situations. The key to making sure your contingencies will work is to clearly define the roles in those plans. This is important so that each member knows their responsibilities and what their work contributes to the greater picture. Even more importantly, they understand everyone else’s roles and what must be fixed if they are not done right.

In combat, the enemy usually targets the higher ranks first. It’s a top-down approach that would send the rest of the team into disarray. A unit that knows the plan and its moving parts can adjust and continue the mission even if the worst occurs. It’s certainly not as drastic in business, but the principle is definitely the same: things can go wrong. A crucial member of the team may have better opportunities or a legitimate reason to be absent, and a robust team knows the process well enough that it can adjust and function without the missing piece.

In order for this to happen smoothly, however, the team cannot have people who say, “this is my work.” A team member that hoards information and is unwilling to work with others protects themselves at the expense of the team. Out of fear for security, these members seek to make themselves valuable by monopolizing information. The minute they are unavailable or exit the organization, the team is left with a gaping hole no one knows how to fill.

The key to preventing this is to foster an environment that incentivizes transparency. A more powerful method is to provide everyone a sense of greater meaning or purpose. There are a lot of things to be afraid of in war zones. Service people feel fear like anyone else, but what keeps us focused and professional is a commitment to something beyond that: the mission and our brothers and sisters in arms.

A great organization has an inspiring mission and a tight-knit community that provides its members with that sort of purpose and motivation. People need to believe in something beyond themselves in order to be selfless team members.