Confession time: I’ve chaired meetings where opinions came thick and fast from north, south, east and west, and I’ve sighed inwardly: ‘Why can’t they all think like me?’ If only they did, I reckoned our business would be much more efficient and harmonious – and we’d be finished in half the time.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t made the issues clear – diagnosed the problem, clarified the goal, identified challenges, presented the solution. Surely they’d all immediately fall in line? What more could they want?
What they wanted, of course, was to consider the issues from other angles, for other ideas to be aired, for other solutions to be considered. What was going wrong? The answer was simple: my vision was my vision, and not their vision.
And, inconvenient though that was, I was missing precisely the point of having a team or task force, or committee. When working well, a group will generate better strategies and better results than any individual could achieve.
Why is that true? And how can a group work well? Hopefully there are some answers here.
But, first, is there ever a time for autocratic leadership?
The simple answer is ‘yes’, and here are four situations when it’s necessary.
When there’s an emergency There’s been an earthquake. People are trapped under rubble. If there’s not immediate action, many will die. Someone must take charge, give orders, and get people rescued. There isn’t time to form a committee, have meetings, delegate tasks. The sole priority is action.
When there’s an imminent deadline I was involved in radio broadcasting, supplying local radio stations and the BBC. The pressure was on when a live show was about to go on air. The programme producer and his team would have shared ideas and planned the programme earlier, but on the morning of broadcast only one voice gave orders. The producer called the shots. With the show about to air, no-one disputed the producer’s instructions.
When the only expert is the leader It’s an uncommon situation, but sometimes only one person really knows what to do. Here’s a scenario. You’re a novice climbing in the Alps or Himalayas, part of a group led to the top by an expert mountaineer. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, you’re caught in a blizzard. Visibility is near zero. The wind almost throws you off the mountain. The temperature plummets to a dangerous low. How will anyone survive? Only one person has been through this before. Orders are shouted: dig in the snow, get roped together, shelter from the biting wind. The mountaineer is the expert, and everyone’s life depends on following orders immediately and without question.
When obedience to commands is essential The chain of command is critical in the military, especially in combat. The commander’s battle plan is the agenda; there is no other. If circumstances demand change, the order comes from an authorised officer. Groups can’t gather on the battlefield or flight deck to share their opinions. Nor can a private decide their strategy is a better one. In the cauldron of war, following orders is critical.
There are critical times, then, when forming a team is not the right thing to do. Teams, though, may have met earlier. For example, no senior commander decides a battle plan without input from other officers. But once the attack is launched, or a deadline is near or an emergency happens, it’s not discussion time. Everyone falls in line with one person’s orders.
But autocratic leadership isn’t the norm. Those circumstances are extreme or unusual. So, let’s now think about everyday situations, and find wisdom for how committees and teams should work in normal circumstances.
Why do we need a group at all?
When I was young and foolish, I solo-organised a day conference for about 200 attendees. To be honest, even at the time I didn’t think planning everything myself was a great idea, but my life was crazy busy, I was seriously over-tired, and I just wanted the job done without hassle. So I did it alone. I decided the programme, I booked the facilities, I appointed the speakers, I managed the budget, I organised volunteers, I allocated tasks, and on the day I became the go-to person for every problem. Mostly it worked. But I was exhausted, knew the event could have been better, and vowed never to be a one-person committee again. And I never have.
But why not? After all, it worked.
Yes, but it didn’t work well. That conference wasn’t the success it might have been.
What I’d needed was a group with members not like me. Let me explain why.
- Flying solo as a leader is simply foolish. The work is too much, the decisions too often only the leader’s way of doing things, the process too tiring, the programme too narrowly focused, the expertise too limited, the responsibility (and the blame) too burdensome.
- A good group is one with members who are not like the leader. It’ll consist of people with different experiences, ideas, skills, and personalities. That’s not obvious to all leaders. Why not? Because they love homogeneity. My dictionary defines homogeneous as ‘of the same or a similar kind or nature’ i.e., people like ourselves. We’re comfortable around people who think like us and act like us. But that’s a problem. Let’s imagine you’ve formed a team totalling ten, much better than relying only on your own wisdom. You congratulate yourself for multiplying the store of wisdom ten times. No, you haven’t. If they’re just like you, you haven’t multiplied wisdom at all. All you’ve created is a group with the wisdom of one, but replicated nine times.
- That’s why there’s no benefit if everyone thinks like you. There’s no added brainpower. There are no additional gifts. When we have people who can think differently and do things we can’t do, that’s gain.
- In other words we need heterogeneity. My dictionary defines heterogeneous as ‘diverse in character or content’. Then each person in the group can ‘bring something different to the table’. New ideas, new approaches, and even new goals emerge. That’s a powerful group. Yes, it’s more work to bring together and hold together, but it’s absolutely worth it.
What are the leadership challenges with bringing together a well-functioning heterogeneous group?
- Believing you need it No-one becomes a significant leader without a healthy dose of self-confidence. We believe in ourselves. We trust our judgments. We know our abilities. True, but that all too easily becomes an unhealthy dose of self-confidence. We imagine we don’t need support, or guidance, or counter-argument. When we meet resistance, we just push harder, squashing the opposition. That’s almost always unwise. The hard truth for some of us is not that we don’t believe we need a team around us, we don’t want a team around us. They might spoil our plans. But leaders with a healthy self-confidence are humble enough to know they need others, and strong enough to lead a group whose thinking is different from their own.
- Being told your ideas are limited or wrong Surrounding yourself with a team who say ‘yes’ to everything you propose is pointless. That’s just the 1+9 wisdom I described earlier. Sadly, though, many leaders have a tough time listening to views which clash with their own. Their strongest instinct is to argue back, and prove the alternative idea won’t work or isn’t as good. I’ve seen that done. It silences the person who spoke up, and usually everyone else in the room. After all, who wants to be next to experience the leader’s put-down? And, if there isn’t a put-down, the leader’s response may be, ‘Thank you for that idea, let’s park it for the moment… Now, next…’ and the alternative thought is conveniently forgotten. If a leader isn’t open to anything but their own opinion, it’s best not to waste everyone else’s time. A good leader is a humble leader. They don’t lack plans, but they’re willing to take the best from others to elevate small ideas into great strategies.
- Getting the best from a diverse group takes skill A truly heterogeneous group won’t think alike. They’re not meant to. The goal of the team isn’t identical thinking, but to apply their diverse skills towards the group’s purpose. A goal has probably been defined already for the group. It might be a fund-raising target, or recruiting more volunteers, or spreading the organisation’s message, or improving internal communication, or enhancing working conditions. The task is given, and the team’s job is defining the best way to achieve the goal. So, first, the leader ensures the group understands its role. Second, the leader helps each person know their particular, distinctive role, and what their role isn’t. That helps prevent person A telling person B what B should be thinking or doing. Third, the leader keeps each person focused on their unique role, because role-drift is common. Don’t most of us think we could do someone else’s job better? Fourth, the leader needs to blend soft and hard skills: soft, to encourage each person in their role; hard, to be firm about the purpose of the group. Fifth, the leader needs to be secure in their ego, not claiming personal glory but constantly praising and celebrating the group’s success.
I’m conscious all the above sounds difficult. I won’t pretend it’s easy. But it’s much needed. I hear people groan about committees or task groups, that they’re time-consuming and never achieve anything. That’s not fair for I’ve seen great groups achieve marvellous results. But, sometimes, those criticisms are dangerously near to being true. We must do better. And we can. This has been part one of a look at could be called ‘team dynamics’. Next time we’ll look at a world famous method for bringing the best from a team. Want a hint? It began with a man whose middle name is Meredith.