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A Team of Leaders

by Abel Avram on Jul 18, 2012 |

A “team of leaders” is a team where everyone is encouraged to take ownership of a project, where the leadership potential is developed in every team member. InfoQ has interviewed Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek, authors of the book Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations in which they explain this concept in detail.

In the post It’s Not Just a “Team Effort”, Bob Vanourek, former CEO of Sensormatic and Recognition Equipment (now retired) and author, and Gregg Vanourek, author and university instructor, present their “Triple crown leadership” concept on teams and leaders. According to Bob and Gregg Vanourek, “leadership is not the sole prerogative of people with fancy titles, corner offices, and loads of frequent-flier miles” and leaders should know that “anybody and everybody can lead at different times, no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy.” They also believe that “anyone can lead, regardless of whether they have formal authority. No matter their title, people can influence others through their behavior,” and “everybody has a license to act, as long as they do so in accordance with the organization’s purpose, values, and vision.” They believe that a team effort is not enough to be successful, that requiring a “team of leaders effort”.

InfoQ wanted to hear more on this, so we contacted Bob and Gregg Vanourek. Before responding to our questions, the authors summarized their view on “team of leaders” in order to provide some context to their answers.

Let’s start with our core premise: the team wants to be “triple crown,” that is, to be excellent, ethical, and enduring. They want to achieve exceptional results, do the right thing, and have those results stand the test of time.

To achieve this triple crown state, the team uses the five leadership practices we outline:

  1. Head and heart: they recruit, develop, and promote for “head” skills (competence, expertise, etc.) and “heart” qualities (character, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit with the team).
  2. Colors: they collaboratively set an inspirational team purpose (mission), set of shared values, and vision for what they wish to achieve.
  3. Steel and velvet: they get beyond their individual personality and leadership styles, flexing between the hard and soft edges of leadership, depending on the situation and people involved, but always explaining their actions by the shared values.
  4. Stewards: they approach leadership as a group performance and are willing to step out of their traditional, functional roles to be stewards of a high-performance culture of character.
  5. Alignment: they collaboratively work to be in alignment and to stay aligned, using the ten steps (or variations thereof) we have outlined.

On this team, there will likely be some hierarchy of leadership with some members having authority over others, and each team member will have designated areas of responsibility. But “stuff happens,” as the saying goes: new, unforeseen challenges arise and action must be taken beyond the normal responsibilities people have. These team members never say, “That’s not my job.” They are committed to ethical and sustainable excellence. Nor do they just look to the hierarchical leader, waiting for instructions as loyal followers.

Likely, when the new challenge arises, the team will regroup and discuss what needs to be done. If the issue is potentially mortal to the team, the team leader may assume responsibility for leading the effort. But if the issue is not potentially fatal, then the hierarchical leader may wait to see if someone volunteers to lead the special project, or he/she may ask for volunteers to address the challenge. Even if the leader is better qualified than anyone else on the team to take the challenge, he/she knows that developing leadership and other capabilities within the team is crucial to long-term performance.

On this triple crown team, someone then volunteers to lead the special effort, even if it is not in their normal area of responsibility. They step up, not just to initiate, but to lead, to take responsibility for getting the results needed, ethically and sustainably.

Others on the team also volunteer to help, and a team within the team is formed, dynamically and seamlessly.

Over time most team members, if not all, will act as a leader. Sometimes each team member, even the hierarchical leader, is also a follower on some endeavor. Like the lines from the John Michael Montgomery song, “Life's a dance you learn as you go, Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.”

The relationships on the team are extraordinary: respect, trust, and mutual support abound. Team members are willing to speak up, constructively and civilly, to nurture and protect their culture of character. Creativity and innovation are sparked, often avoiding the easy way out and finding another way forward.

Team members may argue, even vociferously, because men and women of goodwill may differ on tactical issues, but the disagreements are always fact-based and on the issues, never about the character or assumed intentions of colleagues.

Of course some team members may make a choice to be loyal, supportive followers, and their contributions are valued as they perform their assigned tasks and execute well. But our experience is that most people have leadership potential within them, and the opportunity to lead on something big or small will often be embraced.

This “team of leaders” approach we described is something we have personally experienced with great satisfaction. The leadership ebbs and flows, back and forth, up and down the team, sometimes even without formal discussion. It is extraordinary and a way of working.

InfoQ: When you say Team of Leaders, do you mean Team of Initiators?

No, we mean team of “leaders,” including initiating sometimes but also leading the project or initiative in the full sense.

InfoQ: How is it possible for a team to function when everybody is a leader?

Bear in mind that everybody isn’t leading the same thing at the same time. The act of leadership ebbs and flows. Different people are leading different projects or initiatives at different times. People on the team lead and follow.

InfoQ: What kinds of relationships exist in a team of leaders?

Productive. Trusting. Respectful. Dynamic.

InfoQ: How do you manage conflict in such a team?

Through open communication and constant reference to the shared values of the group, which have been agreed upon at the start. Conflict is inevitable. There will be confusion, sometimes competition, sometimes resentment, sometimes frustration. There must be a commitment to surface such issues, talk them through openly, and work them through as a group. Sometimes the hierarchical leader has to step in with steel leadership and “make the call” or “break the tie.” People generally get that and respect it as long as the process is open and transparent and the way of working together is values-based.

InfoQ: What do you do about those who are inclined to be followers rather than leaders, those who don't like the burden of being initiators but are great executors of other people's ideas?

That’s okay too. Some people are not ready to lead or not interested in leading at the present time. But often it’s the opposite problem: they don’t think of themselves as having leadership potential, or they think of leadership only in terms of the hierarchical authority figure, as opposed to the act of leadership, which can come from anyone.

Bob and Gregg Vanourek are the authors of the book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, published by McGraw-Hill. Twitter: @TripleCrownLead 

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Ignorance is bliss by C Curl

Problem is,
in a lot of organizations this kind of advice breaks down when the team is made aware of what's being done.

Bob: okay, what's next on the list? "Set team mission"
Doug: "Best team, ever". Yeah
Alice: Cool, clojure is wicked!
Bob: btw, Alice, your turn to be leader


Works best when applied gently, or let grow organically out of a set of people who've been through good and bad times together.

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