“A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say” seems to be the approach of many a leader. Of course we all know that this is not how it should be but unfortunately, is often how it is. How many times have you spoken to someone who is ensnared in the trap of such a leader? Perhaps that ‘someone’ is you?

FishThere is no shortage of things written on how best to lead teams and much of it is worth paying attention to if you wish to get the best from your team. However, it is also not as simple as it is often made out to be and there are a number of things that can influence the implementation of the supposedly simple ‘how to’ things that we get fed.

In particular, there are two such things that I briefly want to draw your attention to that, when it comes leading your team, will have a bearing.

1. The organisational culture in which you lead. The overarching organisational culture in which you and your team find yourselves will have a direct bearing on how you lead your team. When that culture is positive and healthy there will be few problems in transferring those qualities into your own team. Replicating or mirroring the overall organisational culture will be easy and will be the obvious thing to do. That said, there is no guarantee that you can do this merely by ‘showing up’. It will take intentional work and effort but creating a good team environment within such a (healthy) context means that things will be working for you and you will not have to swim upstream the entire time. This is why those in executive or senior leadership positions need to understand the impact that their words and actions have in setting the organisational culture. Their influence is critical; it sets the tone and determines the conditions. In short, organisational culture is a leadership responsibility. Their behaviour creates the climate for others to flourish and essentially their actions create permission for others to act. When senior leaders create a positive environment then replication is made easy but when senior leaders create a toxic environment, then developing anything positive is difficult. A team leader who sees a ‘better way’ and attempts to create a positive team environment (in a toxic context) will always, at some or other point, meet the toxic environment that pervades the organisation. Very often a senior leader can obliterate the good the team leader has managed to do in one single act or comment. I have seen and encountered many such situations and it can be very disheartening if you are one of those team leaders who find yourself trying to lead in such a scenario.

2. The fact that difference matters. Difference or diversity has always been with us it is just that today we get to experience and encounter it on a daily basis. The world has got smaller and is more connected than ever before and one of the implications of this new reality is that as a leader, you have to deal with difference whether you like it or not. Recently, in the city centre of Munich I encountered a vibrant protest against the building of a mosque in the city. There were multiple voices and emotions around the issue that attracted a lot of attention. The protest served as a microcosm of the difference that we now encounter on a daily basis as our world changes and adjusts to new rules and realities. The complexity and dimensions embedded in difference make many of the ‘how to’ bits of advice we get when it comes to leading teams redundant. Leading difference is complex and difficult and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or has never had to lead a diverse team. The difference that I am talking about can be encountered at multiple levels: cultural, racial, generational, personal, sexual, educational and gender to name some of the more dominant lenses through which we view difference. What this means is that paradox (where ‘right’ clashes with ‘right’) is encountered at almost every turn when navigating difference. Paradox by definition cannot be resolved but can only be understood. The best way – in fact the only way, to understand paradox, is through access to frameworks that illuminate one’s understanding of the paradoxical situation encountered. This means that as a leader you will need to find and access frameworks that help you engage paradox in such a way that you can leverage the positive from the difference that is deadlocked in a ‘right verses right’ struggle. This is not easy work for any leader. In addition to the framework (knowledge) it requires patience, insight and wisdom. Recently, TomorrowToday have been asked by leading business schools globally to develop programmes and content to help leaders better understand and lead difference. The more we have engaged in this work the more we have come to realize just how much work needs to be done notwithstanding that we are dealing with some of the world’s largest and most successful blue-chip companies. To date this work has taken us to places such as China, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia.

Leading teams has never been more challenging. Today I came out of a client meeting in which we discussed an intervention with their team leaders around helping them lead effectively in this changing and diverse world. The Executive present in the meeting asked that before we engage in this intervention could we first spend a day with her executive team where we could explore the theme and tools to be presented to her team leaders. The day wasn’t to ‘vet’ the content but rather, in her words, “to ensure that we (the executive) understand and are capable of what it is we are asking our team leaders to be and do”.

Now that is smart and insightful leadership. I suspect being a team leader in her environment is ‘easy’ – if only more senior leaders had her attitude!

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