Build a Team of Leaders

Building A Team

One of the most effective team leadership outcomes you can facilitate is for everyone on the team to end up thinking and acting like a leader. It may seem counterintuitive, especially if you’re focused on making your mark by asserting your own unique version of leadership. Therein lies the paradox that alludes many leaders: Your ultimate success will be based on the success of those on the team you lead, not on your solo contribution.

But why should you have to foster a leadership spirit in your team? What keeps people from exercising leadership on their own? I once heard John Lachs, a Vanderbilt University philosophy professor, explain it by describing how passivity creeps into organizations, sapping them of leadership, energy, and ultimately, performance.

Dr. Lachs told the all-too-familiar story of trying to return an item to a retail store, only to be stymied by a passive clerk who cited the rules and regulations restricting her ability to help him. She missed a great opportunity to be exceptional at her job by making a positive difference to a customer. She could have solved another person’s problem, represented her organization well, and made a good impression on her supervisors. Still, accomplishing all of that would have required more effort and responsibility on her part. It would have required she act like a leader by taking ownership of finding a solution. She would have had to take the customer’s request to a higher level and lobbied on his behalf. Instead, she took the easy way out by telling Dr. Lachs she could not accept his return.

If you’re not vigilant, that passivity may show up on your team. Despite what we might like to think, we’re all vulnerable to the temptation to operate more as a dispassionate role or title than as an engaged human. That’s because professional roles are circumscribed, neat, and we can often hide behind them, just as Dr. Lach’s clerk did. Interacting as our real selves requires more from us. It demands we invest ourselves emotionally and take responsibility for outcomes, without any clear indication that we will benefit from doing so. No wonder, “that’s not in my job description,” slips out so easily when one is grousing about having to do too much.

Obviously, you want your team to resist the siren’s call of passivity. These are the behaviors and attitudes you want to foster:

  • Take responsibility.
  • Take obligations seriously.
  • Try to outperform your colleagues.
  • Reach beyond your role.
  • Embody this statement: “I’m ready to serve and will do the absolute best I can.”

Just how do you foster these behaviors and attitudes? Here are some ideas:

  • Make your expectations known.
  • Model these same behaviors and attitudes.
  • Recognize and call them out when you see them in others.

Make it clear that you value leadership and expect it from your team. If they are up to the challenge, you will see the effects in their overall performance, and, instead of your raising the bar for them, they may just start raising the bar for you!


About Dr. Debra Fish

Dr. Fish is a consulting psychologist whose writing and work focus exclusively on helping individuals and teams lead more effectively. Her firm, Fish Executive Leadership Group, LLC, counts among its clients everything from Fortune 50 corporations to small, privately-held professional service firms.

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Photo credit: iStock_team meeting_rawpixel.jpeg

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