How great teams help to shape great leaders

Sneha Arora, and DN Prasad have co-authored this piece on the importance of the roles that teams play in modern-day business and shaping great leaders.
By: | April 3, 2019


About the Authors
Sneha Arora is Director HR at SAP Labs India, and DN Prasad is a Singapore-based Executive Coach and Talent Advisor.

“The captain is as good as his team”. Sound familiar? For those of us who follow a team sport, we often hear this.

Marshall Goldsmith, the legendary leadership coach, in an article aptly titled You are only as good as your team’ says: “For the great achiever, it’s all about ‘me’, For the great leader, it’s all about ‘them’.”

Such thoughts beg a question on the role of teams or members of teams in shaping leaders.

There is a lot written about, many a perspective shared, and theories discussed on role of leaders in building great teams.

A lot of prominence, and, not incorrectly, is placed on expectations from leaders. Often, success or failures are attributed to leadership alone, to the extent of romanticising leadership.

The leaders are placed on a pedestal when they are successful, and the very same heroes find their neck on the block, when met with a failure.

We see this in organisations, whether they are in sports, politics, business, or what have you.

In today’s dynamic, disruptive and collaborative world, the leader does not have all the answers, or in fact even all the skills.

The role of the leader is changing more into that of a team coach, an influencer, or an “orchestrator of the symphony”.

We need to shift the lens away from leaders and towards teams. Leadership is built on mutual trust, and the leader is a part of the interplay between stakeholders, organisation and team culture, and the larger ecosystem.

Martha Peak, then Group Editor of AMA Magazines, was quoted in Management Review: “My father had a simple test that helps me measure my own leadership quotient: When you are out of the office he once asked me, does you staff carry on remarkable well without you?”

That beautifully sums up the question we are raising in this article.

Let’s first understand the possible challenges with the “individual” leadership lens.

Results are owned by the leader, not the team: When teams place the leader front and center, the sense of collective accountability for results takes a hit. The mindset of individual results takes priority, and, the team results are perceived to be the leader’s responsibility.

Consequently, the “what’s in it for me?” question takes precedence and the collective responsibility is lost. The joy of a team’s success or the pain of failure rests on only one set of shoulders.

Team dynamics: When everyone is focused on individual results, it creates a false sense of unnecessary competition, politicking, and a constant urge to prove individual brilliance.

Team members fail to see any incentive to collaborate and build trust with each other, and bringing the team together is seen as the responsibility of the leader.

It is the hypocrisy of dysfunctional teams that the team constantly expects leaders to build trust with them and build a culture of collaboration in the team, without any contribution from the team.

And even when the leader attempts doing so, the efforts fall flat, or are even met with passive resistance.

Results may or may not suffer: Results may or may not suffer in the short term, because individuals focused on their own results continue to achieve.

However, in the longer term, a dysfunctional team can only achieve as much – because the multiplier effect of collaboration, and engaging work culture goes out of the equation.

Building collective leadership

Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist and founder of the Analytic Psychology had said, “The true leader is always led”.

This thoughtful quote aptly represents the responsibility of the team in shaping itself, and, the leader as well. It is crucial to shift the lens from leader as an individual at the front of the pack, to the leader as a part of the pack.

And, some key elements that we have listed below are required to help create this “two-way street”.

Empathy: We expect empathy from leaders; the same expectation should hold true from the team, and for the leader.

We need to acknowledge that leaders deal with and shield the teams from various organisational constraints, navigate conflicts, and nurture the culture at the workplace to deliver results.

Also, no one is born a leader. Teams play an important role in nurturing and shaping the leader. The case for this support is even more pronounced for a new leader, who needs feedback, affirmation and the trust that they are in the game together with the team.

Feedback: Leaders are expected to provide feedback, and support the team in achieving their goals and individual ambitions.

Likewise, teams need to be generous with their feedback to the leader – both positive and constructive. A good example here is the Manager Feedback Survey that Google has been following for almost a decade.

For fostering collective leadership, teams not only need to invest in their leader but also each other. Honest, open and real-time feedback shared with the right intent from peers can help a team member develop, making the team stronger, both in terms of performance and team spirit.

Culture of psychological safety: Creating a culture of psychological safety is not only a leader’s responsibility. Teams need to create this for the leader, and for each other.

Everyone, including the leader, needs the space to be their authentic selves, to be able to contribute, feel vulnerable, fail and learn.

The importance of psychological safety has been found to be Number One requirement for an effective team, in a longitudinal study by Google, named “Project Aristotle”.

Hold each other accountable: By setting expectations with leaders to ‘lead from the front’, we encourage autocratic behavior and put the leader “outside” the team and not as a part of it.

And then we decry the same leader for not collaborating, being overly results-focussed, or empathising with the team.

Every member in the team shares the responsibility of creating a work environment where everyone is excited about pursuing a collective goal and bringing their best selves to the game.

This also means that there should be no hesitation in holding each other accountable, instead of constantly looking up to the leader to own this space.

Building a human workplace: Workplaces are changing from artificial constructs with a defined hierarchy to more human-oriented systems, where a group of people are trying to achieve a common goal they feel passionate about.

A workplace which stifles authenticity, and has an absence of trust, is a toxic workplace which not only impacts results but overall well-being and happiness.

The question everyone needs to ask to themselves is – ‘Is this the team I am proud to be a part of?” If the answer is not a resounding “yes”, chances are not just you, but others could also feel the same way.

You need to ask yourself what you can do to make it the workplace or team you would feel proud to be a part of. It could be as simple as initiating an open conversation with others as the first step.

Max Lucado, a noted Christian author and preacher says: “A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd”.

This sums up the challenge a leader (conductor) accepts, and, the trust he places on the team (musicians). A powerful analogy indeed to highlight the “two-way street” that leadership should be, and the huge part, the team members play.

And, in playing this part right, there is tremendous learning and growth for everyone.