A leader’s role in leading a team

One of the key tenets of leadership is that you, as a leader, are responsible to first make sure that your team is capable of delivering. Now, that is a simple sentence, but implementing is is anything but. Let’s look at that sentence again:

“As a leader, you are responsible to first make sure that your team is capable of delivering.”

I’m going to break this sentence down in its components:

“As a leader …” defines your role in the project, the activity, the mission, in short, the theater you are taking your team into. You are a leader which means you need to define why you are there. You should not yet define what needs to be done and certainly not how it needs to be done. You first need to be very clear, as a leader, on the why you are where you are with your team. You are a leader, and as a leader, in this phase of the journey, you are in front, you are explaining and ideally you are motivating the team to get it, whatever it may be, done.

“… you are responsible …” which means the buck stops with you. You have taken the responsibility to deal with something, to solve a problem, to chase an opportunity, and you have no one to hide behind if it goes wrong. That is extreme ownership as defined by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin If your team succeeds, it is the achievement of the team. If your team fails, you and you alone take the final responsibility.

“… to first make sure …” indicates where your prime responsibility lies. If you have a certain expertise in an area, it is tempting to go beyond the why and directly start focusing on the what or even the how. After all, you are an expert, right? But don’t. Even if you are not a hierarchical person, hierarchy plays a role every time, all the time. I assume it’s our monkey brain. And if you start going deep on what and how, you run a significant risk of disenfranchising your team. I had a boss, a long time ago, who was always micro-delegating work to me, with a detailed description of how to do it, even though I had a good grasp on how to do it and some ideas on how to do it better. That does not motivate nor did it make me feel valued, and we did not work together for very long.

“… that your team …” indicates that you are not alone, and you have a responsibility for the group of people you were able to assemble to get the job done. Your team will do the job, you have to keep connecting them to the why of the job, and you need to be clear with them on when the job is done. Your team means it is your responsibility to gather people with complementary skills which together should be capable of getting the job done, which for you means achieving the why, not the what. A quick aside, if you go straight for the what, you risk crowding out great ideas from your team on realising the why. You limit the ideation around that to only your scope, and that is just a waste of good resources.

“… is capable of delivering.” refers to the simple fact that you need to establish a governance framework for the project which allows the team to work in the most optimal circumstances possible. You will not be delivering, your team will. Your role is to ensure they have all the support needed to deliver and to directly intervene only when necessary. You are a coach and you keep reminding the team of the direction they need to follow to achieve the why.

Few leaders understand that a true leader is a servant leader, someone who owns the why and who enables the team to succeed. If the team fails, the leader has failed. If the team succeeds, the team has excelled. A true leader is a coach who keeps challenging his team and keeps pointing to the true north: the why.