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How to Lead a Team and Not be a Jerk

Right now we have a kind of mania for the idea of collaboration. There’s a mistaken idea that collaboration is democratic. It is not. But team leaders too often focus on what can be accomplished by treating team members as a supporting cast for individual ambition. They would be better off harnessing the power of individuals and their wishes for big things.

Published in The Huffington Post, July 26, 2017
by Daryl Twitchell, Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Rabson

Right now we have a kind of mania for the idea of collaboration. If you have kids in school you know they’re being educated to live and work in a world of teams. One of the first lessons they learn is that some kids don’t pull their weight. Also that some kids want to run the whole show.

Consider this: On your last day of work would you rather hear yourself praised as a leader or a great team player? The latter sounds so sort of weak by comparison. We’ve all been wired to want to be a team leader. We all know leaders get more stuff in life than team players.

When good teams go bad it’s because the platitudes about collaboration don’t accommodate the way real people behave in groups. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Donald Trump’s television show, The Apprentice, was all about killing off members of a team.

Leaders who don’t & the problem of the brilliant jerk

There’s a mistaken idea that collaboration is democratic. It is not. Someone (we hope) is going to be held accountable for the success or failure of a team’s work. In formal terms these people are defined as the leader. But hierarchy aside, some individual is always going to stand out as a more expressive or at least a louder voice than everyone else.

All of us have experience with the problems with teams. People can be preposterously pleasant to each other, for example, and no one takes on hard problems. Potentially great ideas dissolve into consensus, screwing up exactly what was valuable about bringing smart people together. And sometimes the leader doesn’t lead.

How many of us have heard the nominal leader of a team say, “So where are we?” Or at some point say, “Let’s take that off line,” which really means “Let’s take your idea outside and bury it because we’re not going to discuss it anymore.” This is evidence of leadership drift.

Other times we’ve encountered formal leaders who process but don’t understand the content. To them, running a team is about time keeping, not what comes out of that time. Deadlines must be black and white. Next-steps and to-do’s logged. Other people’s names (not their own!) put against everything. A written team mission that stops conversation. This passes for productivity.

Compare that with the brilliant jerk (a coinage that may become Netflix’s most lasting contribution to our culture). This is the swashbuckling soul destroyer, oblivious or at most indifferent to what motivates other people, shutting down ideas they don’t care for. Often you just have a jerk and no brilliance.

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