Team-Building Is Key to Leadership

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No one is born a leader. Leaders evolve. They adapt to conditions and, ideally, make the most of them. They learn from setbacks and mistakes and by looking around at everyone else’s.

When they experience success, they do not take it for granted. Their lives as leaders are a work in progress. As they pursue a vision of what they want to achieve, they rarely travel in a straight line. They are, rather, changing just to keep up and, even by indirection, get ahead.

The best ones have certain fixed principles—like loyalty to their staff—but everything else is up for continuous evaluation. Having a vision makes no practical sense if you can’t make the most of your moment.

So, leadership is a constant negotiation between who and where you are and who and what are pulling you in other directions. Usually, people want you to satisfy their vision (sometimes even their vision of your vision). If, for example, you want to market a new product, how do you project the competence to strike out on your own? It’s a balancing act, somewhere between fake-it-till-you-make-it (not the best approach for the risk-averse) and making an impact with dazzling research (which you may not have). If you can toggle around in the middle and keep learning and adapting, you might arrive at a place where you’re credible.

Your objective is to learn from the competition, rather than to succumb. While adversity is always there, your objective is to find ways over, around, and through. Leadership is like some engineering project where the lines on the map are rarely straight. The point of the project is to get from A to B, however many detours and obstacles need to be cleared.

One of my clients, Burt, learned how to lead by adapting to changes surrounding a company that he inherited. He could have remained complacent and, probably, earned a pretty good living. But he had a vision that propelled him to learn how to adapt to changes and turn them to his advantage. When he didn’t know something, he hired people who could teach him. He built teams of experts. He discovered that no leader is an island. Leaders function as part of rapid-response teams that tackle adversity and beat it back.

In our own lives, we can be guided by a vision but, nonetheless, be willing to take on board people who know more than we do. We are no less a leader by acknowledging what we don’t know. So, ask yourself:

  • Am I willing to learn from the competition without risking my ego? Does stiff competition scare or energize me?
  • Is good-enough okay with me? If not, how can I take my vision to the next level? What sorts of people will have the will and expertise to support me?
  • How can I become a successful team player, while still remaining in charge?
  • Am I good at diagnosing problems so that I can choose the right people to tackle them? If not, how do I learn to find problems so that they can be addressed?

Good leaders develop an instinct for motivating others to believe in their vision—and for keeping them involved as the vision evolves. They share the credit and the perks. But while we have heard a lot about a team of rivals—people who work together but have disparate interests and give differing advice—it’s best to start out with people who put your interests ahead of their ulterior motives. You need to conserve energy for your project rather than for quelling internecine battles and figuring out who’s ostensibly right.

Before you choose a support team, however, you should have (or develop) a good grasp of near- and medium-term problems so that you can choose the right team(s) to support you. This usually necessitates taking a deep dive into every aspect of a project, rather than just orchestrating teams to do it for you.

There is a delicate balance between second-guessing your expert teams and taking their advice without question. This requires judgment, which, in turn, develops with coming to grips with every aspect of your project. You’ll have to muck around and get your hands dirty (as Burt did). To create something as a leader is to build it, piece by piece, and all the pieces need to fit, eventually.

That is, don’t expect things to fall into place all at once. In fact, when they do seem to “fit,” remember, they are not Lego pieces that will fit tightly. They are likely to wobble as circumstances change. So, leaders need to stay on top of that change and build teams that can accommodate to change. In other words, while the people on your team may be experts—that is, after all, while you hired them—they should still think outside their own boxes and appreciate the bigger, surrounding picture. You will need to do the same.

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In fact, the best teams are already thinking about change even before it occurs. In effect, if you are the projecting your vision and, in that sense, looking ahead, they are attempting to see around corners. They are your advance warning system.

To choose a team that is merely reactive is, therefore, a mistake. The best team is busy postulating what-ifs. What if the market for a product takes off, will we be ready? What if a new regulation hits? Their job, in part, is to imagine contingencies, and they should feel comfortable enough to make you aware of them. They may not already have the solutions, but at least you will be able to maintain your vision remaining fully informed.

So, of course, maintaining lines of communication is a key component of pursuing your vision and, by extension, of making a success of your leadership potential. Learning how to put teams together (What skills do they need? What character traits?) and how to use them effectively (Where do I want them to focus?) is a key component of leadership.

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