#527  Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 4          April 2001

Some Myths of Effective Teams
by Harvey Robbins, Ph.D. and Michael Finley

Dr. Robbins, of Robbins & Robbins (www.harveyrobbins.com), consults on team development, leadership effectiveness and interpersonal influence.  Mr. Finley is a writer, focusing on change (www.mfinley.com).  They published The New Why Teams Don’t Work (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2000), from which this article is adapted.   

Leadership is the vessel for many of the worst team myths, for a logical reason.  As keepers of the team vision, leaders must make up a lot of stuff.  Here are some of the worst illusions foisted on us by leaders about leadership.

  •   Teams require a single individual to lead them.  It isn’t so.  There are many models of team leadership, ranging from traditional iron-hand rule through various degrees of self-direction to apparent leaderlessness.  Leadership can rotate by the clock, or by the task at hand.

  •   Strong leadership ensures success.  Again, it isn’t so.  Strong leadership is useless if the people following the leader are incompetent or uninterested in the team task.  A fundamentally bad team cannot be “led”—except perhaps to a place of execution.

  •   How a leader is selected is not important.  Wrong.  Leaders must be selected in a way that is consonant with the task a team is assigned, and the kind of team he or she is assigned to.  A free-wheeling, autonomous team will not welcome a leader assigned from outside the group.  A new leader may have trouble adjusting to an established team.  A team never previously allowed to make decisions for itself may be unable to choose its own leaders.  

  •   Team structure is a secondary consideration.  It isn’t.  Every team structure and configuration we are aware of—functionally aligned, cross-functionally aligned, matrix, network, single-leader, multiple-leader, leaderless—is valid, when applied to the appropriate team task.  Perfect leadership and perfect followership combined will still come to nothing unless the team is the right type of team for the task at hand.  

  •   A good leader and a good team can solve any task.  Sorry—not every task is appropriate for team action.  If a task shouldn’t be done by a team at all, it hardly matters who or how skilled its leader is.  It’s easy to get away with team fervor, but it’s the old saying, “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

The Myth of Senior Teams

Finally, there is the seriously mistaken notion that senior teams function like other teams, just in a more senior way.  That teams at the top—teams comprised of board members, CEOs, presidents, vice presidents and other senior-level execs—roll up their sleeves and collaborate in the same way that grunt teams do.  They don’t.

Anyone who has been on a senior team knows how rare true camaraderie is.  The senior team table more closely resembles a play from the Renaissance, with dukes and earls and grand viziers jockeying for advantage, than the kind of team we have been talking about.  At the top levels, politics reigns supreme, and “team members” are there less to cooperate on joint action than to pursue constituent agendas.

This is partly because of the personality type that tends to rise to the top of organizations—Drivers with a bullet.  Hard-charging executives prefer disposing to proposing, and they are typically rewarded for superior top-down, command-and-control performance.  Except perhaps for the Vatican, large organizations do not turn to pastoral types for leadership.

But let’s imagine that a generation of powerful, collaborative-minded managers rose suddenly to the top—people who share information, swap skill sets, and set their egos aside to achieve common objectives.  In fact, this will happen someday, and not far in the future.  Generation Xers and Yers are much more prone to team action than their Baby Boomer predecessors.

However, today’s corporations will not welcome these generations, and will throw up powerful resistance to them.  Today’s organizations are modeled after patriarchal organizations established centuries ago, when leadership was envisioned in a singular, Driver-driven, masculine, competitive, Machiavellian way.  Intrigue and manipulation are built into the charters of these organizations.  To expect companies like IBM or Daimler-Chrysler or Harvard University to lead the way in describing a new kind of leadership by team, is to ask these organizations to go against their own natures.

Senior teams are “teams” in names only.  They don’t act like real teams because they are really parallel teams of one, each with their own constituents. Real teams share roles and responsibilities, whereas senior teams typically have parallel accountabilities.  They are never able to prioritize goals since each member feels that his niche’s goals are the most deserving.

Oh, it is sad and hypocritical.  While top management encourages teamwork among the rank and file, they have no clue about it themselves.  They can’t.  They are constitutionally prohibited from engaging in it.  When top management cannot practice what it preaches, why should the rest of us take the preaching seriously?

Never, ever, look to top management for team leadership. (Well, perhaps never is too strong.  We will, with the passage of time, see the development of true senior teams.  But it will happen in smaller, younger organizations.  And it will be lifetimes before the model takes hold in their Fortune 500 counterparts.)

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