Feature Article: The Leader As a Team Player

Russ Volckmann

In the prior issue I described teamwork among leaders as inspired collaboration. Note that teamwork rests upon a foundation of organization and purpose, all dedicated to achieving evolving business objectives. This perspective is an example of how an integral approach allows us to shift from thinking about either/or (hierarchy or teamwork, for example) to both/and (leading and being a team player). James Collins and Jerry Porras came to advocate both/and in Built to Last.

Hierarchy is one structure that is implied by organization. I am suggesting that teamwork follows from inspiration and is built on a foundation of organization (read system, structure, process including hierarchy). Leaders in business need to understand and communicate that both of these modes are essential in the rapidly changing dynamics of business today. We all need to be clear that there is no moral imperative for one over the other.

For teamwork to be most effective it needs to be inspired. The team is able to perform at new levels of generativity and creativity to respond to new or unanticipated situations. Executive or business leadership teamwork is built on the capacity to manage routine. What inspires? It could be a challenge, desperation, an exciting opportunity, a passionate dedication to a vision or mission, or determination to create an outcome and receive a reward.

And this means that when we are creating and developing capacities for individual leadership, as important as all of the leader competency literature is (and this is most of the literature on leadership), it is important to include what is important about the individual leader’s capacity for becoming an innovative player on the leadership team.

Note that phrase: an innovative player. The two parts of this relate to what is important to the leader (innovation) and how the leader demonstrates that (player). What is important is grounded in commitment to leadership purpose, as well as the immediate situation the leader is faced with. It is influenced by the leaders’ life events and those of others in his/her life. And part of this constellation of what is important is related to what drives the leader to be an effective team player: a capacity to innovate in the face of novelty and challenge for the leadership team. This may be a functional equivalent of Badaracco’s notion of the quiet moral leader (see summary below).

I am reminded that Margaret Wheatley said recently, “All coaching is life coaching.” Or words to that effect. When she said this a room full of hundreds of coaches cheered. Well, Meg is right. All coaching is life coaching. And coaching business leaders involves life coaching…and a whole lot more. The capacity of a leader is always influenced by what is present in their individual lives and roles, as well as what is going on in the organizational, business and leadership field in which they find themselves.

Leaders’ capacities for innovation are a product of their ability to be clear about their motivations for creative responses as well as their ability to open their minds to new ways of seeing and interpreting their own responses and what is happening in their environment. For many of us, this is the tough stuff. Learning communication skills (challenging though that may be) is easy compared to learning how to think in new ways, discover assumptions, work through our competing commitments and address the boundaries we place on our imaginations. And this is essential for developing the capacity for innovation required for effective executive and leadership teamwork.

The player part of this is the behaviors that creativity and fresh thinking foster. Think about this in the context of an inspired jazz group. When Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond performed LeSouk in their Jazz Goes to College live performance they were able to anticipate and engage with each other in a way that led to one of my all time favorite jazz performances, one I never tire of listening to. Or a basketball team. Did you ever watch exchanges between Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippin or any of the other Chicago Bulls when they were at their best? They were well organized and their play often seemed to be absolutely intuitive. Each was able to be generative and creative in their exchanges and totally baffle their opposition.

Well, that is the kind of player that I am talking about. For an inspired executive team to perform at that level, each individual leader needs to know how to be innovative and to use that innovative capacity in relation to other team players.

We can look to the literature on creativity or the use of intuition in leadership and find some useful guidance in supporting leaders to develop these capacities. Yet, I think that the single most valuable path to this is the path of experience. Of conscious experience. This means that leaders need to be able to increasingly move into conscious competence in their relationships with innovation, in their sense of themselves and their capacities to manifest this competence in relation to other leaders.

Perhaps the most effective way to develop those capacities is simply to pay attention. Notice what is going on inside and out when circumstances demand creativity on the part of the individual leader and the leadership team.

Next Issue: Leading the Enterprise

> Russ Volckmann