Leadership teams

Published on July 31, 2013 Reviewed on February 27, 2017   48 min
Hello and welcome, everybody. This is Ruth Wageman, and I'm speaking to you from the campus of Harvard University in beautiful Cambridge, Massachusetts. What I want to talk with you about today is to introduce you to the challenges and the opportunities of leadership teams.
The most familiar kind of leadership teams for you is most likely to be the top team of an organization. So the team that is composed typically of a chief executive, or chief operating officer, or chief financial officer, and the senior leaders, who together work together to run the whole organization. But there are other kinds of leadership teams too. For example, if you do volunteer work or if you are part of a community council, you might work with some peers who are collectively working with you to exercise leadership over some important problem that you want to solve in your community and may be transforming the health of your community, it might be working on the educational system, you may be doing some work around the environment, but each of you individually is a peer exercising leadership collaboratively. And what I am portraying here in this lovely photograph in front of you, this image of a healthy coral reef, is the idea of a collective, that's actually greater than the sum of its parts, right? So a coral reef is an array of very diverse creatures that together creates a strong healthy ecosystem. The individuals are strong, as a consequence, the collective is strong and it creates a healthy context.
But this is my humorous way of characterizing what I think the reality is with most leadership teams and what they actually look like in practice. As we'll see, teams that are composed of leaders, rarely actually operate as an aligned group of peers that are providing all of the collective leadership that are needed by some complex enterprise. In fact more often, you see them being dominated by one individual or they are scattered and fragmented, and they're ineffective in their focus.
So why is that a problem? Let me start by saying that, in 2008, when I published my book on leadership teams, I said something in the text that I think may have been controversial at the time, but isn't anymore. What I said was that, "The day of the heroic CEO is over." And I think very few people would argue with that now, and I was not saying that as any kind of indictment of modern leadership, rather what I was saying is that our world is much too complex, much too interdependent, and changes much too rapidly these days, for any one individual to provide all the leadership that any complex entity needs. So think about it this way. As markets change or as technology changes, the chief executive at the top of an organization for example, first of all, have to detect those changes. They have to think through whether this is a potential threat to the organization, is it an opportunity? Are there different strategies that we could take to address it? And then how would we go about implementing it? That's a pretty complex set of questions and it's actually too much for any one individual to tackle alone.
The kinds of problems that we deal with these days require leadership teams. Think about the potential that leadership teams have. When you bring multiple people together to exercise leadership, compared to one individual, they have more resources, they have more expertise, they have more diverse resources that they could bear upon the problem. Collectively, they have a wider range of authority, they have a wider range of experience, and collectively, they have the opportunity for vast influence over things that really matter to us all. And I'm not just talking about the leaders of business organizations here, we're also talking about the kinds of leadership teams, that are, for example, forming all around the world, leaders who are trying to transform their educational systems to actually teach 21st century skills, and to bring 21st century technology into the classroom. That's a complicated problem, it requires leaders from multiple institutions in order to make it happen, and it's the right way for leadership to occur. But typically, what I find in my research is that teams are composed of leaders, actually typically performed very poorly. In fact, in the studies that I'm going to be citing as I talk to you today, fewer than 25%, less than a quarter of them are outstanding leadership teams.
So I want to start by being clear about what exactly we mean by a leadership team. Very simply, a leadership team is a team that is composed of leaders and each of the members of this team has some individual leadership accountability, but collectively, they also share accountability for providing leadership to a larger collective. So we have talked through some of the kinds of examples that you can see from top teams and organizations, to the dispersed grassroots teams, that may run a political campaign, and yet convene their leaders to take responsibility for the whole campaign. All of these are examples of collective leadership occurring because multiple leaders come together to lead that larger enterprise. What do we mean by an effective leadership team though? I'm going to use here Richard Hackman's criteria of effectiveness, that he published in his book in 2002 and it's called, "Leading teams." What Richard suggests and what we draw upon in our research here is that, leadership teams are effective to the degree that they meet three criteria. First, their work, the work that they do together actually meets the standards of all their key constituencies. In other words, any team as a client, or a customer, or someone they exist to serve. Now that turns out to be a very complicated question when we're talking about leadership teams. For example, the leadership team at the top of an organization serves its customers, it serves its shareholders, it serves its employees, and it serves the partners and suppliers with whom it works in the larger array of institutions. So a leadership team actually has a lot of different constituencies that they need to satisfy. An effective team is also one that actually grows in capability over time, rather than burning out the ability to work together in the future and we're going to see as we talk about some examples of real leadership teams, very often this is a sign of effectiveness that they don't live up to. And then finally, the third criterion of effectiveness is that any leadership team on balance should be contributing to rather than undermining the learning, growth, and development of their individual members. In other words, a great leadership team is a place that develops the leadership capability of the individuals who are their members.