I was recently asked: “What are the qualities of the best team leaders I have worked with?” It was a question that led me to this article. It also made me reflect on my experience in coaching and facilitating teams.

Having been around business teams across different cultures, different industries and organizations for over 30 years, one of the distinguishing truths that I observed about great teamwork is the importance of the leader and his or her approach. The commitment of the leader to a team, the quality of the leader to share the success with the team, and the intellectual & emotional capacity of the leader to have an appeal to a variety of personalities, are all critical ingredients.

There are many strong leaders who don’t build the team very well. They probably don’t appreciate the importance of a team. It could be true that there are situations that may require a hub and spoke model, or even a working group model rather than a team, however, for anyone who has experienced a high performing team or even powerful small group collaboration at its best, will know the true power of the collective. Great teams deliver high performance consistently and keep challenging their team members to bring the best out of each other. Teamwork tackles complex change much better than silos of experts, and it accelerates innovation to transform the organization. When working well, a strong team will significantly amplify strategic impact.

However, a great team need’s a great leader. Our experience and research points out to a few ingredients possessed by leaders of high performing teams.

  1. Team leaders have the drive that is needed to lead, but not so much that it squashes collaboration.
  2. They want to win. But they are playing a bigger game beyond short-term outcomes.
  3. They give up many execution decisions and even some strategic ones and allow these issues to be dealt by the team. This liberates them to take on bigger and ultimately more important challenges.
  4. They are focused. They understand the strategic priorities of the broader organization and don’t get distracted.
  5. They don’t fight Ego wars. They realize that their strength comes through the performance of others.
  6. A key task is keeping the team connected to the broader purpose and vision.
  7. They sort through data to attend to areas for greatest leverage and impact.
  8. They realize the dangers of being overly dogmatic. Their experience has taught them that many truths exist side by side.
  9. This allows them to celebrate the diversity of sense-making and perspective without feeling challenged.
  10. They have strong self-awareness and present themselves as an authentic personality.
  11. They appear to have positive past experience of either good teamwork or strong collaboration. They know it works either through their own past experience or perhaps through what has been demonstrated by the past mentors.

This list of attributes could be further reduced to a cluster of really critical areas. We came up with 4 capabilities that both bring alive the longer list above and provide the greatest impact:

  1. Getting a clear collective purpose & direction, together with clarity about roles and goals
  2. Building an environment of integrity and trust so that less time and effort is wasted on “politics” and infighting.
  3. Having the important& tough conversations within the team and in helping to connect the team to the broader organization’ context.
  4. Bringing out the strengths of each team member so that diversity is fully utilized to everyone advantage.

Finally, it is worthwhile highlighting that there are moments in the life of any senior team when the leader needs to try something different. These moments present as a critical point of the team’s journey. Get them even half right and the team will surge forward. Ignore these moments, and the team may stumble and become somewhat trapped into a pattern of resistance and reaction.

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