Last week I ran an team builder for a major Silicon Valley company and all went well until I spied a very typical scene. Like all my events, we put people into heterogeneous small groups of 4-6, some from management, some from the ranks and even a sprinkling of executives throughout. Their mission was to navigate throughout the area with my custom map, looking for clues that would lead them to the key to the treasure-filled chest.
Easy enough on the face of it – until you have the CEO on your team. And it never fails that the boss ends up with the map, leading the way, with the rest of the “team” tagging along for the ride. So as the event planner and I surveyed the field as teams were out hunting, she remarked how proud she was that her boss was engaged and “leading.” I had to break her the news that what we were witnessing was classic dysfunction.
Her boss was out front, “leading,” for a myriad of complex reasons. Before they left for their first clue I gave the entire team a map and directions. What happens in most teams is that someone speaks up, “OK, so who is good with a map?” and the team does a quick inventory on their abilities. The Navy SEAL or Scoutmaster sometimes gets the job outright. Other times the group just settles on anyone, giving them a chance. Success will breed more support.
Sadly, this team seemed to be mired in leadership paralysis. Not the kind where the leader is frozen and can’t make a decision. Think of Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny.” The Bogart character was incapable of connecting with his men and making any rational decisions. Consequently he bore down on the crew with even harsher discipline. During a the money scene where the ship is almost lost during a typhoon due to Queeg’s incompetent paralysis, the mutiny takes place and lives are saved.
Again, this is not the paralyzing behavior I am talking about. Ours is infinitely more subtle. What happened to our Silicon Valley CEO and his team was probably this: When faced with the decision on who was to lead the group, at least to the first clue, no one spoke up. The underlings were silent because none dare make the boss look bad. The boss could have been silent because he was waiting for someone else to step up. When no one did and that uncomfortable silence became deafening, the CEO did what he does best. He grabbed the map and began the activity (possibly saying to himself, “Well, that’s why I get the big bicks. I make the command decisions.”)
Now our CEO is happily leading his team around the park and the sheep are happily following. But now he has built a gap between himself and his team, all valuable members whose experience could probably help. As Professor Edgar Schein of MIT said,
“The job of the successful leader is to build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may ned to know to get the job done.”
And for all practical purposes, the essence of team building exercises emphasizes a safe place for trial and error and not necessarily business as usual. But it becomes a sticky two-way street once our CEO has elevated himself above his team mates. The gap broadens as leader and followers fall deeper into their non-responsive roles. You could see the body English of the folks behind him, walking with no interest, no involvement and certainly no input. On one hand, the CEO has shut himself off from the valuable experience of the other five and the followers have also abdicated their roles as helpers, even helping the leader. The whole mess spirals deeper into dysfunction. As Schein goes deeper,
“Leaders have to become much more humble and learn how to seek help, because the subordinates under them will be much more knowledgeable than they.” from Forbes.
Of course, this was just a simple, fun, light activity but that is the whole raison d’etre of team building like ours. Our boss could have included his team in the decisions, even forcing them to take turns at leading, careful to not bias their attempts with any premature feedback. The boss who is good at this actually shifts into the “follower” mode and hangs back, kibitzing with the rest but supporting the leader du jour.
Higher level processing would have a facilitator sit that team down after the activity and debrief what worked, what didn’t and then talk about the elephant in the room. But that would mean our CEO would have to make that decision and shine the light on his own shortcomings. And who among us like to admit wrongdoing? Certainly not Captain Queeg.
Oh, and our Silicon Valley company? They had a blast and never knew there was a problem.
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