Team Leaders: Know Your Roll! (It’s a Pun)

“Mike is a skilled team leader. He manages to eliminate obstacles for us, walk the talk, engage each member of the team, create energy, and focus the team. I really respect him, see him as one of us, but also appreciate the unique roll he plays.”

– Team member talking about his boss

Focusing on creating healthy teams is important for all the reasons listed in Jim Morris’ recent blog about why team cohesion matters, and more. And yet, team leaders often struggle with the question, “What is my role in creating team health?”

The critical role of team leader is different than the role of other members. Healthy teams are aided in their existence by effective team leaders; as opposed to existing in spite of them. To be effective, team leaders should go first in modeling desired team behaviors, lead the way in practicing team health, support and encourage healthy conflict, translate the vision and direction forward, and remove barriers to the team’s success within the larger organization.

However, it is common for team leaders at all levels to vacillate between completely driving their teams, and watching them somewhat from a distance.

On one end of the spectrum, the team leader serves as sole captain of the ship, controlling decisions, assigning accountabilities, and owning team performance as his/her own. On the other end, they watch benevolently from a distance while the team wrestles in their own process, at times getting lost and damaged from the effort.

The metaphor that I like the best for truly healthy relationships between teams and team leaders is that of a bicycle wheel.

The leader acts as the hub, or center of the team, and the individual members are the spokes, with the rim representing the critical connection between the team members. In this framework, each spoke has a strong relationship with the hub and as a result, knows his or her role, unique contribution, and receives direct performance feedback. The combination of the spokes and the rim allow the wheel (the team) to roll forward without getting bent out of shape or underperforming.

Imagine if the wheel had a hub, but no rim. When members have strong relationships with the leader, but fail to build trust and accountability with their peers, a heavy burden falls on the leader to maintain communication, accountability, trust and partnership with each individual direct report. Without a rim, issues between and amongst members flow through the team leader whenever they surface, rather than being dealt with directly. This bogs the leader down with mediation and resolving personal conflicts, damaging the team dynamic.

Now imagine a wheel with a strong rim, but no hub. Team members who are strongly connected to each other, but have weak individual connection to the team leader, may collude in ways that distance themselves from company strategy, and are at risk for missing the mark with their performance. As a result, the leader loses connection, credibility and ability to enable the success of the team and its members.

At their best, healthy teams roll forward smoothly, with rim, spokes and hub interacting in such a way that progress is dynamic and energizing, and bumps in the road are handled successfully.

With a skilled team leader who consciously embarks upon his or her role, and understands its relevance and importance, teams are far more likely to thrive and achieve phenomenal results.

Jim Morris