Brilliant functional leaders who head up their own teams of high performers often share an observable trait: they stop leading when they come together in a group with their peers, e.g. at their regular senior leadership team meetings.
We see it. Too often.
From our data and experience of nearly 20 years, there are a number of reasons why highly effective leaders stop leading when they come together and they include but are not limited to:
- A lack of discrete contracting about the expectations of behaviours within the team
- A well-meaning but overly directing nominal leader
- Leaders in one context limiting themselves to being solely a follower in another setting
Let’s looks at each of these in turn and see what you might be able to do about them if these traits appear in the teams you are involved with.
1. Contracting around behaviours
Great teams spend time getting a clear and shared understanding of what the expectations are on each member of the team. This might include developing both specific roles in addition to a more generalised set of expectations.
One of these team-wide intentions must include the leadership requirement on all members when they are within a team setting or representing the team to the wider organisation, customers and/or other key stakeholders. Being explicit about this single aspect of what it is to contribute to a highly effective team is (in our experience) perhaps most especially important when team members are already leaders elsewhere i.e. have their own team to lead.
2. Overly directing nominal leader
We see the ‘nominal leader’ as the person with the title and ultimate accountability for the team. This person would be the one that the other members of the team would turn to for appropriate permissions, sign-off etc.
Where the contracting around leadership expectations has not been completed (See #1 above) and in some cases even when it has, there can be temptation for the nominal leader to feel that – for a range of reasons – they should very visibly and actively lead the team. Albeit that the team may comprise a number of highly experienced leaders in their own right. This disempowers the other leaders, creates doubt and a sense that you don’t trust or value their points of view, experience etc.
If you are such a leader, find ways to re-orient your identity within the team to be more of a facilitator of experts, rather than role model an identity that might look more like “the Boss” to outside observers (such as us when we come and work with you!) This helps you to:
- add more specific value to team activities, from your own deep experience
- provides a platform for your team members to add greater value
- gives you first-hand evidence of how your team are operating and contributing
3. Identity crisis
For leaders who are also part of other teams of peers/leaders – which is pretty much everyone in an organisation – you need to work out for yourself what it means to be a follower and behave accordingly, whilst … and this is important … not giving up all your leadership activities, skills and experience. You need to be able to do both dynamically – be willing to follow and be led by others, whilst also be willing to pop the leader hat back on when required, step up and do your thing!
We know it is tempting to welcome a break from the responsibilities for a while and let someone else take the mantle/burden of leadership.
But we’ve got some bad news: You don’t get not to lead. It’s a full-time role. That includes when you are working alongside your peers.