Team leadership skills

The most inspirational leaders are bone-deep team oriented people, in contrast to those who are comfortable only in a traditional hierarchy...

The most inspirational leaders are bone-deep team oriented people, in contrast to those who are comfortable only in a traditional hierarchy, with its many layers and the shape of a steep pyramid. These leaders put the leadership team development before individuals. Inspirational leaders always talk of current and past success coming from the efforts of the team, not from the handiwork of any one person (especially themselves). When speaking of the future, these leaders invariably talk of the need for expanding collaboration and teamwork, realizing that future achievements will require extreme amounts of collaboration. These are the basics on how to be a good leader.

The importance of the mutual respect between a leader and the members of a team has an interesting history. We’re all familiar with the crowns worn by royalty. Some are bedecked with jewels set in elaborate gold and silver, with ornate filigree and elegant carving. So in ancient times, what crown might have been the one most treasured by its recipient? Could there be a crown considered to have far greater value than any creation of diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and gold?

team leadership skills

What if we said that it was a crown made of grass? What’s more, as hand-woven headpieces go, it wasn’t particularly nice. It was not beautifully designed, and the weaving was rather crude. It was made of extremely simple materials and fashioned by the calloused hands of Roman legionnaires. But this Grass Crown was without question the most revered honor that any leader of that day could receive. Why?

It was not given by any single person. No king, emperor, or magistrate could confer it. Nor could any body such as a parliament or senate confer the Grass Crown. This was an award given by the soldiers to their general. It was always awarded by acclamation. The award was given in recognition of visionary leadership that in a time of great crisis or trial enabled the army to be victorious.

The respect of one’s subordinates is the ultimate tribute to an inspirational leader. As we have said before, if you want to know about the effectiveness of leadership communication, ask those who are led.


It begins with the extreme complexity of most efforts in organizations. There are few tasks or projects in organizations today that can be completed by one person acting in isolation. The more important the task is, the more likely it is that it requires the cooperation of other departments to pull it off.

Beyond that, from a front-line worker’s perspective, nothing is more wasteful than to have artificial boundaries in the organization based on different leadership traits definition of their turf. In ancient times, when princes were at odds with each other, but were conducting their covert personal battles in an overtly civil and dignified manner, the spear carriers who were loyal to each prince were on the battlefield killing each other. That phenomenon lives on inside modern organizations, where you see the subordinates of one executive working to outsmart and outflank their colleagues who report to another executive with whom their boss is at war. This is when statements like, “Don’t talk to them,” or “Don’t give them anything that isn’t absolutely necessary” get made. Sometimes this happens between competing divisions, such as Latin America versus Europe. Other times it happens between functional areas, such as when operations and sales are at odds with each other. Conflicts between the home office and the field are classic. In each case, it is the people at the lower levels who pay the high price.


One of the most frustrating experiences that employees describe is being told by their boss that they are forbidden to cooperate with another group inside the company. In some cases, they are even forbidden to talk with the people from another department. For the employee who is attempting to serve a customer or complete a project on time and needs the help of those in another department, to then be told that such collaboration is off-limits is maddening and highly demotivating.

We consulted with an organization that was a combination of two behemoth organizations that had joined forces to develop a new product jointly between them.

Their cultures were different. The assignments that people received were only temporary. Two leaders, one from each parent organization, were attempting to lead this project as “two-in-the-box” coleaders. One told the people with whom he had a close relationship that they must not talk to the people from the other company. The people at the lowest level recognized that the project’s success absolutely depended on there being a close working relationship between the two groups, and they were caught in an uncomfortable vise. How do you resolve loyalty to your boss with your perceptions of what’s good for the organization overall?

In another organization, a senior head of a major operating division was at odds with corporate headquarters and all the staff people who were at the corporate level. This very personal conflict placed all the people who reported to him in an extremely awkward position. Did they actively participate on various task forces that were assembled with representatives from each of the operating divisions? Did they cooperate with initiatives that came from corporate headquarters? Did they take any initiative to interact with their counterparts in other divisions? The answer was most often no, and that caused an enormous drain on the effectiveness of the overall corporation.

Such interpersonal conflicts seem reminiscent of teenagers in high school and their social dynamics. You could laugh at how childish these squabbles were if they didn’t have such a destructive impact on organizational achievement and efficiency.


For most people, there is an excitement and energy that comes from being part of a team, even for those who seem highly independent and often are solo performers.

One of the most dramatic moments of the 2008 Olympics was when the U.S. men’s swim team came from behind to win the 4X100 meter team medley final. The hero of the Olympic games, Michael Phelps, was on the deck of the pool with teammates Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones, cheering wildly as Jason Lezak chased  down Alain Bernard of France in the last 15 meters to win the gold medal. Swimming, of course, is a highly individual sport, but there was more excitement in the team event than in any other at Beijing’s Water Cube. Most of the swimmers had competed against each other during the meet, but the joy and excitement of having a teammate succeed was tangible. They appeared to be having far more fun sharing the team success than was ever evident when they were swimming alone in various meets. Phelps summed it up simply after the race when he said, “The team events are the funnest!”


So what practices can you initiate that will foster this team spirit and collaboration in those who report to you?

Minimize Competition

One of the assumptions guiding some organizations is the belief that if you want to get the best people to work their hardest, the surest way is to set up two or more competing groups. Give them the same challenge. Yes, some feathers will be ruffled, and maybe even some fur will fly, but it will produce the best result in the shortest time. After all, life is all about winners and losers, and that’s the price you pay for getting a great result. Do you agree?

Don’t. Collaboration almost always wins over competition. As far back as 1954, Peter Blau of Columbia University studied two groups of interviewers in an employment agency. One group’s members were highly competitive, were concerned primarily about their own productivity, and were highly ambitious. The second group was just the opposite. Its members were by nature collaborative and worked as a team. The second group’s success in filling jobs was far better than that of the first.

Virtually every study that has been conducted on the impact of competition versus collaboration has shown that competition loses. Why? Success in today’s world demands the sharing of information and resources. Competition erodes and finally destroys that. Competition breeds suspicion and hostility, which, in turn, actively discourage any sharing of information and resources. Furthermore, trying to do well for the overall organization and trying to beat an internal competitor are two totally different objectives. They cannot both be met at the same time.

Wise leaders are cautious about structuring competition between groups, realizing that unbridled competition often leads to conflict. Conflict, in turn, has enormously negative outcomes. Competition is an accepted, even revered, element of our society. People compete in sports. We compete in business. Our legal system brings competitive points of view together before a judge or jury. Most of the time the participants, whether they be athletes, corporate employees, or lawyers, can meet and be civil with one another and not have personal animosities arise.

But unbridled competition that persists over a long period of time leads to highly dysfunctional conflict. It often becomes personal. The game or the issue takes a backseat to emotion. Fights erupt on the field. Teams begin to engage in questionable practices (such as the videotaping of signals that the opponent’s coaches are giving from the sidelines, as practiced by the New England Patriots) in order to obtain some advantage over others. Long-established rules of engagement are set aside in the heat of the battle. Even the fans supporting the teams, people sitting high in the stands and not butting heads on the playing field, become so emotionally wrought up that they pick fights, throw cups of beer on fans of the other team, and end up engaging in highly destructive behavior.

Social scientists have observed for decades that highly successful innovations that occur in one part of an organization are seldom adopted by others. One plant figures out a way to streamline the production of a device with 30 percent less cost. Other plants are manufacturing the same product. Reason would hold that the other plants would willingly embrace such successful innovations and readily implement them in their part of the corporation. While the reasons may be complex and many, the competition between divisions in corporations seems to be the single largest force keeping that from happening. People think to themselves, “I don’t want a sister division to do well, especially if it makes us look bad.” “We compete for resources against them.”

In the early days of Apple Computer, two competing teams were created to develop the next generation of computers. But a strategy that had been intended to accelerate the development of a new product ended up with the groups stealing resources from each other and building walls of silence in a wasteful and destructive manner. The Mac group won, but the internal cost was extremely high.

What’s the lesson to be learned? Use competition sparingly. Keep the duration short. When it’s over, bring the teams together to celebrate. Be certain that people inside the organization recognize your real competitor as the real competitor, and that it is never a sister division.

When leaders receive 360-degree feedback from their employees, we have observed that one of the most frequently occurring criticisms is about the leader’s tolerance of conflict within the work group. People often express strong feelings about the need for the leader to step up and do something about the conflict that is tearing the group apart.

Make Teams the Basic Building Block of the Organization

What’s the difference between a team and a randomly selected group of individuals? It starts with the members of a team having common leadership goals or purpose, and continues with their having some definition of roles and responsibilities. It often includes having some defined processes that govern on the leadership communication skills and how the team operates and communication channels that enable the team to function. Many forces combine to create effective teams, and the evidence is quite clear that team-based structures are becoming the standard. They generally perform better than a more traditional hierarchy.

Today’s organizations, with their global reach and complex set of activities, are able to function because of two “structural materials.”

The first is information technology, which makes it possible for companies to make timely information available to thousands of people simultaneously, no matter where they’re located. The second technology is the innovative use of teams—not in the traditional sense, but as a basic building block of the new architecture, relying upon people to use their collective knowledge, judgment, skill, and creativity to perform a variety of jobs and functions, rather than just one, in concert with their colleagues.

Teams aren’t appropriate in every circumstance. But when the situation is right, teams have a broad range of beneficial results for the organization. Information flows more readily. Coordination between individuals is more seamless and easier. Decisions are made with greater rapidity, and all involved feel greater ownership in the outcomes because they have had a strong voice in the decisions. The ultimate execution and implementation of any project can be accelerated. The teams have structurally helped to create an organizational culture of collaboration.

The fear that many have about the concept of teams is that personal accountability will be diminished. They worry that the team will allow everyone to point a finger at several other people and say, “I’m not responsible; it’s these other people.” This is not how effective teams function. Rather than individual team members pointing at each other, the outcome has been that everyone on the team feels a great personal sense of responsibility for the output of the entire team. Instead of having one person feel responsible for making something happen, there is now a group feeling of responsibility for everything.

Reward Team Effort and Accomplishment

The inspirational leader emphasizes the value and rewards for team effort. Many leaders push this concept aggressively, all the way to the creation of self-managing work teams, in which groups of seasoned employees take on many of the functions that would normally be performed by a supervisor or manager. Short of that, they do the following:
  • Reward those who collaborate with others
  • Coach those who hesitate in their collaboration with others
  • Ask for team members to report in staff meetings on collaborative activities that are underway
  • Praise colleagues for time spent assisting other divisions or departments
  • Free people up to participate on corporate task forces or to support a sister division
In a large gathering of executives of a large sportswear corporation, senior executives asked some of the 450 people in attendance to stand up and report on activities in which one division had specifically helped another. Reports were greeted with cheers and applause. If you believe that what is rewarded gets repeated, then think of ways to spotlight acts of team effort and collaboration.

Assume that most front-line employees enjoy collaborating rather than competing.

Assume further that these employees have the good of the organization at heart, rather than merely that of their own department. Employees appreciate alignment between what they know is good for the organization and what their leader rewards. It is not surprising, therefore, that the leader who encourages team effort and cooperation will be far more inspirational than the leader who behaves the opposite way.

Dismantle Silos

The best leaders freely cross boundaries for the organization’s good. Formal organization charts with lines and boxes describe reporting relationships and chains of accountability. They conveniently group functional activities, such as marketing, sales, and operations. But they completely fail to describe how organizations really function. One observer noted that while organizations appear to be groups of silos, the real work occurs in the horizontal pipes that connect them, either above or below ground. As the Total Quality Management movement took hold and helped organizations to greatly increase the quality of their products and services, one of its main conclusions was that approximately 85 percent of the inefficiency and waste in organizations did not happen within departments, but in the pass-off of activity from one group to another.

We were asked to coach an executive who had troubles in this arena. In our feedback session to him, we commented: “You are seen as pinning labels on people or groups, such as ‘nonsupportive,’ ‘can’t make up their minds,’ or ‘not pulling their weight.’ What impact do you think this behavior is having on your direct reports and peers? Have you considered praising other groups in public. Focus on what they do well, and work to magnify that. If you have some criticism or complaint, go privately to them with that feedback.”

Criticizing other groups in public has the effect of filling the horizontal pipes that connect the groups with quick-setting concrete.

We went on in coaching him: “Within the overall group reporting to you, it is perceived that there are subgroups that need to be brought together. That has been characterized as a ‘veterans’ group versus the rest of the organization. Would greater cohesion within the overall team produce some real benefit? People admire your standing up for what is best for your former employer, but they also think that issues between the groups are escalated more rapidly and with more amplitude than is needed.”

This leader’s behavior was not helping. Reinforcing the walls of the silos is never a good idea if the organization is depending on seamless interactions between groups.

Resolve Conflicts Quickly

When people live together, daily interactions can easily lead to misunderstandings and minor irritations. Some of the most interesting research in marriage counseling has shown that the biggest single predictor of those couples who ultimately end by divorcing is the absence of a problem-solving or conflict-resolving mechanism. Divorcing couples simply could not find ways to get over their differences amicably. Other couples experienced just as many or just as serious conflicts. Those who stayed married figured out ways to fix them.

That principle also applies inside organizations. Organizations get into trouble when conflicts fester and the leaders ignore this. We noted earlier that in our work providing multirater feedback to leaders in organizations, the two lowest scores received by most leaders are on “Practices self-development” and “Resolves conflicts within the work group” through leadership development programs.

It is unclear whether this comes from the following:
  • Being unaware that the conflict exists
  • Discomfort with stepping into such issues
  • Inability to resolve conflicts
In addition to the normal discomfort with conflict, many of you who have been parents have attempted to resolve a fight between two children, only to have both children turn on you. Your efforts at adjudicating the battle ended up with you being the adversary of both of them.

Or, it could be that we don’t know how to resolve the issue. With all that has been published by groups that have studied conflict resolution, the following concepts and appropriate behaviors seem straightforward and clear:
  • Find common points of agreement.
  • Agree on the principles underlying a good resolution of the dispute.
  • Help people to move away from their “position” on an issue and focus on identifying their “interests.” What is it that is important to them? Is there a way to help one group attain its interests, while simultaneously having the other group attain its interests as well?
  • Create options that benefit both parties.
  • Agree on the criteria that you will use to resolve the issue.

Involve the Right People in Decision Making

This leadership development goals behavior appears to work in two ways. Looking at it from the perspective of any subordinate being studied, this behavior of involving the right people may mean that “my opinion is sought.” If so, it is clear that having a leader seek my views on an important topic is highly motivating. It is an act that conveys respect and appreciation. It is a form of recognition. It strengthens the bond that I have with my leader. For a host of reasons, this is motivational.

Alternatively, if I am working on a project and seeking to move it along, my leader’s willingness and help in getting the most knowledgeable and strongest people to help in the decision process is also highly motivating to me. Again, it moves the project forward at an even brisker pace. It signals that what I’m doing is important, and that it is for the overall good of the broader organization.

History records innumerable examples of people with leadership qualities being influenced by able teams and how this greatly enhanced their ultimate success. American history records several instances of General George Washington wanting to attack the British and being blocked by a strong cabinet. From every indication, viewing the events from a historian’s perspective, the cabinet was absolutely correct. Attack would have been disastrous. More recently, the Cuban Missile Crisis that happened during John F. Kennedy’s presidency showed the value of involving the right people.

However, successful teams require a highly disciplined process for decision making. The team needs to agree up front how it will go about making important decisions. This process defines how key decisions are identified, how information is collected, who will be involved, and the process by which a decision will be achieved.

Create an Inclusive Environment

One of the traits of good leadership skills that inspires and motivates is the willingness of leaders to help people feel that they are inside the organization as full-fledged members looking out to the rest of the world rather than being on the outside looking in. Leaders who are comfortable with diversity in race, gender, age, academic background, and general demeanor are far more inspirational to each individual who represents those differences than are leaders who are comfortable only with people who look and think like themselves.

In this way, the strengths of individuals are used. That in itself is highly motivating. Leaders clearly need to not play favorites and to put the well-being of the group above that of any one individual. However, the counterpart to that is the great gains that come from showing concern for each individual in the group.

The power of an inclusive group to inspire and motivate people in the group is an ironic element for this post. We’re analyzing what it is that leaders do that inspires. In this case, in an almost catch-22 process, the leader’s creation of a cohesive team would seem to be circumventing our main objective. In reality, the cohesive team provides some of the strongest influence to perform at the highest level.

The Marine on the battlefield would quickly acknowledge that he is primarily fighting for his comrades on either side of him, not for the captain or the general. It is the wise leader who recognizes this powerful force and who makes no attempt to get in the way of it.


Collaboration and teamwork are norms that need to be established in the culture of the organization. For them to succeed, many other elements need to be in place.

Effective teams ideally require diversity of skills, talents, and experience, along with other kinds of diversity. The culture has to become one of putting the organization’s and the team’s interests higher than anyone’s self-interest, no matter how senior that person is in the organization. Ideas and proposals have to be evaluated on their merits, not on the role power or position that their proponent holds in the organization. There is a far greater degree of empowerment for the people, and thus leadership characteristics are shared much more broadly through the organization.



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Thought Leadership Zen: Team leadership skills
Team leadership skills
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