Taking One For The Team


A little food for thought… A group of twelve wolves:  The three in front are old and sick, they walk in front to set the pace of the running group lest they get left behind. The next five are the strongest and best, they are tasked to protect the front side if there is an attack. The pack in the middle are always protected from any attack. The five behind them are also among the strongest and best; they are tasked to protect the back side if there is an attack. The last one is the LEADER. He ensures that no one is left behind. He keeps the pack unified and on the same path. He is always ready to run in any direction to protect and serves as the body guard to the entire group. Just in case anyone wanted to know what it means to be a leader, it’s not about being out front. It means taking care of the team. —-Ivan Ginsberg

The best bosses that I ever had were quiet leaders. Sometimes it was not until they had gone that those of us who worked for them understood the full extent of their greatness. They were the kind of men and women who rarely tooted their own horns, but rather proudly shined the limelight on their employees instead. They sometimes took the heat in our defense without mentioning the troubles that they were willing to endure for us. They were low key but ferociously loyal to the team. The success that they sought centered on finding and developing the individual strengths of each member of the group. Often their guidance helped us to find talents within ourselves that we didn’t even know we had.

In particular I recall working in a school that had a less than sterling reputation. It was one of those places where people were reluctant to go. The employees were thought to be mediocre to bad. Public opinion of the place was abysmal. A new principal infused life into the place without hiring a single new person. His secret was quite simple. He made a point of providing each individual with special responsibilities based on their particular skills. He turned followers into leaders. He made former weaklings feel strong. Before long people were flocking to the school from all over town to see what miraculous things were happening, when in fact the only real change had been in how the system was run. The talent had always been there and this man was able to make it work.

There is a current trend to see the brash and boastful as the sort who should lead us. We tend to favor those who sling the most hurtful insults or fire the most people. We view arrogance as power, when the truth is that such individuals are actually harmful. They are the sorts who will leave us stranded and responsible for our own safety when danger lurks. They mouth caring platitudes, but when push comes to shove they are all in for themselves and toss us to our enemies.

Years ago my husband worked in a start up company created by a man who literally sucked the air out of any room that he entered. His focus was more on his own needs than those of the business and its employees. At the grand opening party I met his mother. She was a sweet lady who was nervous about the impression that she was making. She did not want to ruin the event for her son who was doing his best to avoid her. She confessed to me that he had only asked her to attend for the optics, otherwise she felt that she was somehow an embarrassment to him. At one point he walked over to her and stealthily suggested that she had been there long enough and needed to just go home before she messed up his big moment.

I remember thinking that he was a horrible man for treating his mother so poorly and I silently worried about my husband working for him. My forebodings were right on target. Within months the organization began to fall apart as the man slashed and burned the cohesion of the team. Eventually there was almost rebellion among the employees and my husband was among those who left in complete frustration. For all of his fanfare the arrogant boss ended up being all hat and no cattle. There was nothing behind his words other than his own insecurities which ultimately led to the business failing rather quickly.

Loyalty is rarely produced by intimidation. A great leader understands the importance of seeking a common purpose and using individual talents in that pursuit. When there is an atmosphere of respect and gratitude for each contribution people are eager to work for the cause whatever that may be. When we feel safe we are able to ascend to higher and higher levels of actualization. When we see that each person is valued we are willing to take risks to become more and more accomplished.

The downfall of organizations or governments can be traced again and again to a kind of megalomania that pits one person against another, breeding paranoia and unhinged competition. Enron had been a good place to work until Jeff Skilling unleashed an atmosphere of winning at all costs that lead to cut throat tactics and deceit. The mentality of firing the bottom fifth of producers each year created a chaos that encouraged lawlessness. In the end the employees were left for slaughter.

One of my former students has started a very successful business. I have noticed with pleasure how often he gives credit to his employees and demonstrates his gratitude for their hard work. He understands that his job is to be the leader by following behind and taking care of the team.

There are entire educational programs designed to teach individuals how to to manage organizations. A great deal of social science has been dedicated to researching teamwork and leadership. The one thing that all conclusions have in common is the realization that working together in a spirit of mutual respect is critical, and it is the leader who makes or breaks the system. If we want to drain the swamp of any group that is not working, we must first find a leader who is willing to work with the group.