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When “Follow the Leader” Is Bad for the Team

Senior executives usually work at having strong relationships with their team members — but surprisingly often, they don’t focus as strongly on their relationship with their team as a whole. What’s even more curious is that intense one-to-one relationships are usually inconsistent with the leader’s stated philosophies about the importance of the group and their beliefs about the role of teamwork in managing both the organization and the work.

What could a person in power possibly want out of this kind of dysfunction? Some of the possibilities include:

  • The benefits of being “in relationship” in a way that you can only be with an individual, not with a group;
  • The definitive sense of power and control that comes from managing one relationship at a time without any risk of others taking exception to your leadership stance;
  • The chance to make each individual feel “special.”

An Unraveling Team

But the team falls apart. It becomes a team in name only, not in operation. Instead of acting like the Three Musketeers (one for all and all for one), the team members are forced to play a zero-sum game: “I’ll support you as long as you’ll support me.” Individual members go looking for what they think they need — a personal relationship with the power source. They may actually give up the idea of a true collaboration, and treat their teammates more like a loose coalition.

When the typical situation is that somebody’s being treated as the team’s star or golden child, and another, less fortunate somebody is on the way to the woodshed or the doghouse, then each person’s every action and role tends to be discussed and dissected by the rest of the group. This kind of over-involvement can feel oddly like the imbalanced dynamics in some families, where there is always one sibling up and another one down — and everyone is buzzing about it.

Not all strong relationships are positive. Neither is the impact of all strong leaders. Both can take all the air out of the room, and stall innovation, creativity, and truth-telling. The experience can become one of frustration, anxiety, and insecurity about the future, with team members left wondering:

  • Can it be safe for me here?
  • What if I’m not really special?
  • What if it turns out that the other guy gets whatever he wants, and I get nothing?

Instead of the team engaging together — in a contest against the marketplace, or in resolving a policy problem — their work turns into an organizational game of shifting loyalties, backchannel communications, subtle and not-so-subtle manipulations, jockeying for position, and hardening of role boundaries.

When a leader has held significant control for a long period of time, or there isn’t any greater authority to dictate (and support) power-sharing this distracting and inefficient behavior can occur in any organization, no matter how small or ostensibly informal. It’s even more likely to happen if the leader’s team is separated by location, organizational status, level of experience, etc.

Putting the Teamwork Back in the Team

How can a team recover from this kind of complicated mess? Here are three practical approaches:

  • Leaders who are dissatisfied with the team’s performance may trigger an outside intervention if they have a strong enough desire for success as well as the humility to recognize their own need to change. Typically, the outsider explains the dysfunction so the team can recognize it, and then helps to create enough sense of trust and safety to move the change process forward, while keeping the leader and the members in balance.
  • One or more group members can sponsor and sustain the necessary change. Someone from within the group may have the strength to withstand the seductiveness of being in partnership with the leader — and in small, large, and always respectful ways, keeps putting reality on the table where the whole group can see it.
  • There is a structural change. Usually, the players change and/or the rules change when the leader changes. The group may be in for a hugely disruptive period, but a change in leader will create the cleanest break with the past — that is, if the team survives.

When one of these shifts occurs, it’s possible to create a virtuous cycle in which the team supports all the members and the members support each other, both individually and as a group. This support sometimes takes the form of peer (or peer-to-leader) pressure, acknowledging when the team itself is not working well, so that everyone can get back on track. Over time, it becomes clear which members truly want what’s best for the organization, and which ones are only in it for themselves.

Onward and upward,


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11 thoughts on “When “Follow the Leader” Is Bad for the Team

  1. Thanks, Mark. Funny how we all need to be able to operate both as leaders and as team members.

  2. Hi Liz

    Yes, this is a great post. You address so well a common phenomenon among top leaders and managers who have learned to live with one-on-one relationships in lieu of leading a team. I’m surprised at how common this is, and often a contributing factor in the stability of this dysfunctional arrangement seems to be the defensive attitude of group members that there is little or no value added in the team getting together. So it literally never does, or does only marginally for briefings. In fact, if the group is then assembled without sufficient prep and structure, the conversation about working as a team may quickly become tense, passive-aggressive or competitive — or simply be dismissed.

    SO, the first step of the intervention, I believe, involves using the old system (one on one) to begin setting the stage for creating the new one (group), and necessarily involves preliminary conversations between the leader and members about the purpose of the group getting together. Without some agreed upon, even preliminary sense of the group’s purpose and value, plus some useful structure and order to the meetings, I’ve found it pretty hard to get the wheels to turn….Perhaps you have other insights about that and I’d welcome more of your thoughts on that start-up phase. Best to you and thanks for a great post.

  3. Insightful. More often as not, we bring our “biography” to work…where the subtle and not-so-subtle family-of-origin psychodynamics play out…in this case, as you allude to, collusion betwen leaders and others in one-to-one co-dependent and/or dysfunctional relationships? Why? Most often to assuage the ego’s need for control recognition and emotional/psychological security. Hard to do with a group. Nice piece.

  4. Thank you, Dan, for your very thoughtful comments. It’s actually amazing how common this situation is. I think your approach is a good one, and very logical. Consider one additional aspect — one that’s not so logical.

    Leaders need love too. And a sense of their own efficacy. I think these one-on-one relationships are a way of protecting primacy and self-image, and that when a leader deals with a team as a team, the leader must be comfortable with a different kind of satisfaction. Some executives will have real difficulty trading the warm, personal feelings of being the most important person to the individuals for the cooler, more limited satisfaction or pride of fostering and sustaining the team.

    In addition to the appropriate organizational change you’re suggesting, the leader will probably need some personal coaching or other support to initiate and maintain the kind of introspection and development that will permit the “start-up phase” to be more than a well-intentioned fiction.

  5. Peter, your explanation of group dysfunction is so likely to be the case, and so difficult to address in the workplace. Between the personal dynamics and the power dynamics, even people who mean to be on the level are not always aware of their contribution to the “mess.” It’s so hard for any of us to see beyond ourselves.

    Thanks so much for your perceptive comment.

  6. This is a helpful discussion for me. Putting together all the thoughts here, the approach clearly needs to be holistic, involving sensitive coaching for everyone. Your point, Liz, about the leaders needing love, too, is certainly at the very core, and I’m totally with you that the impetus for change may come from the leader, or from members, or from a structural shift and new leader.

    Why would a leader embrace such a change, knowing that he or she had “colluded” in creating the problem? That’s, for me, where the love (often from the third party) comes in and is so vital — for it gives that person what’s been missing all along: the freedom to explore his or her own possibilities, growth, and the self-definition he or she truly wants over time. I don’t think it is so much the leader’s dissatisfaction with the performance of the team that calls the person toward change (and if it is, it’s not as likely to be successful); but more often a hard to articulate dissatisfaction with themselves and their own sense there is “more.” My own experience helping leaders answer the questions they define for themselves about their leadership is that this work often leads to a discussion of the shift in style or approach a leader WANTS to make, a change as much within as without, that is a release from the shackles of the past. If the feedback is rich enough, and there is safety in the work, it will certainly touch the family-of-origin issues.

    We third parties are believers in people, and we can create that safety through our love for the person. The love enables us to only to tell our truth to the leader, to be real, but that in the end is so much less important than enabling the leader to tell him/herself the truth and be real, too. Once there, the work begins in earnest, and the coach can play what Ed Batista calls “a necessary and modest role” to help facilitate the broader change — and then step back.

  7. I think many leaders want to “do good” as much as they want to be top dog, and it’s that tension, Dan, that permits us as “third parties” to offer support for change.

    But it’s hard to give up the thrill, the almost electrifying charge that comes with power. I suspect it’s quite addictive — and the idea of forgoing it? Sort of like giving up candy for Brussels sprouts. The sprouts may be delicious when well prepared, but that urge to have just a little more candy is tempting, compelling, and very hard to resist.

  8. So, to the last two comments – Dan and Liz; some disparate thoughts:

    -that the container of safety (Dan’s “love”) the third party creates is such that the leader understands, knows and feels, consciously, s/he is not “bad” or “wrong” for the behaviors they have manifested – colluding, and the like; that any shame or guilt they may now be experiencing is “OK” in the sense that the third party is not judging them as bad or wrong and that self-judgment here serves no purpose; it’s just that very “young” part of their self that is leaking out now and it’s effective to see that — tich food for the exploration, the inquiry, not judgment.

    -The question of power is a useful one. One question I might ask is: “What does power get you?” And when they view their responses (for example: recognition, acknowledgment, some flavor of “love,” or…, the follow-up question is: “How might you get that in another way?” Would that serve you? And continued to explore/probe the responses.

    -And, to Dan’s point, “…The love enables us to only to tell our truth to the leader, to be real…” To end up in the place where the leader is able and willing to tell their own truth, with a capital T, and to experience their own real-ness and authenticity.

  9. Wow, I love the images! I think my perspective may be somewhat different, but I love the idea of that tension enabling third parties to offer support. I may be taking a idiosyncratic approach, Liz, but tend not to see that rush of power, nor to see moving toward team management as some type of loss for the leader. I’m more on the side of formal power simply amplifying the strengths and deficits of the person’s natural temperament and expressions of their personal forms of power, overusing some forms, underusing others. Given that, the internal tension that shows up as the person’s own desire for growth and completion, masked and blocked to some degree by the formal authorities, but not lost. Helping clients find and and tap that desire is a first step in the work. Thanks for this very interesting conversation!

  10. Dan and Peter, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad this post has gotten you thinking — organizations will benefit!

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