What Leaders Need Now More Than Ever: A ‘Team of Rivals’

INSIGHTS FROM:James R. Detert

Recently I had the chance to share the stage with Megan Reitz, a professor at Hult Ashridge Business School in the U.K., at the Thinkers50 conference in London. I talked about my research on everyday courage at work — the subject of my forthcoming book — and she focused on employees speaking up to those in power, which might be the prototypical workplace courage act because of the career risks it can entail.

These days, of course, leaders know that they’re supposed to say they value input from everyone, from anywhere in the organization. Yet as I’ve written before in Harvard Business Review, that doesn’t mean even those who say they want input are actually regularly and systematically doing the right things to create that behavior in those around and below them.

That’s why I found Megan’s question, which she said she poses regularly to leaders she works with, to be so insightful. “Remember a time in the last week,” she asks them, “when someone in your organization challenged you?” If it takes a long time for them to come up with something, or they can’t, that’s a pretty informative statement about the actual conditions they’ve created for speaking up.

A TEAM OF RIVALS

During that same visit to London, I visited the Churchill War Rooms — the set of underground rooms near both the prime minister’s residence and key government buildings — from which Winston Churchill and his key advisers worked (and often ate and slept) in relative physical safety throughout the years of bombing that devastated the city during the Second World War.

One thing that stood out to me, given the aspects of leadership that I’ve spent my life researching and writing about, was a plaque that described the composition of Churchill’s first War Cabinet. “He built a ‘Grand Coalition,’” it stated, “taking people from the three main parties.” He took care, it continued, “to include old rivals.” At the top is a quotation from Churchill himself: “We have differed and quarreled in the past, but now one bond unites us all.”

I immediately thought of Abraham Lincoln and the “team of rivals” that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Lincoln as having surrounded himself with as president during the U.S. Civil War in her award-winning book by the same title. Upon winning the election, Lincoln did the nearly unimaginable today — he gave three of the top six positions in his cabinet to his primary rivals for his party’s nomination and the other three to members of the opposition party. It was, says Goodwin, “evidence of a profound self-confidence.” Surrounded by strong-willed, brilliant, and ambitious men who often held wildly different views than himself, Lincoln built a team that helped him navigate the country through the darkest period in its history. Social science research has since showed — repeatedly — that diverse teams whose members engage in constructive dissent outperform teams of likeminded or self-censoring people.

QUESTIONS FOR LEADERS DURING COVID-19 AND BEYOND

Megan Reitz’s question, my visit to the Churchill War Rooms and my revisiting of Lincoln’s building of a team of rivals left me with my own questions for today’s leaders in all arenas. As the world now faces a different kind of war than Churchill and Lincoln faced — the global COVID-19 pandemic — these questions, and the imperatives they suggest, seem as important as they were in those historic times.

When, recently, did you actually change your mind and subsequent behavior about something important as a result of dissent from those with less formal power or status than you? Too often, leaders pat themselves on the back simply for being able to say that they allow people to disagree with them or share alternative viewpoints. Sure, people feel better being heard. But it doesn’t take long for them to figure out it’s a charade of openness and interest if all you do is march forward with your own way of thinking most or all of the time.

So, if you actually believe that others can have more relevant expertise or better ideas than you, or simply different blind spots than your own, then it’s not good enough to just listen to different views. You have to actually admit when someone else’s ideas are better, and then adopt them. You have to make and implement decisions that others recommended. You have to change your own behavior as a result of the input. And then you have to publicly share that so-and-so helped you see things differently and that you’re grateful for that.

Have you built a “team of rivals”? One thing we see far too often is that it takes a true emergency or crisis before (if at all) leaders realize the limits of an overly homogeneous team. Until then, it’s just easier to be around those who willingly confirm what we already believe, and to ignore or even denigrate those who see things differently.

That time has now come for leaders of all types and at all levels. If you had already built a team of rivals, you’re likely navigating the COVID-19 crisis with better input and a stronger decision-making process. If you haven’t, are you willing to admit that and add diverse, constructively disagreeable people to your team right now? If ever we needed leaders willing to forgo the desire to have pleasant, ego-stroking meetings in favor of making the best decisions possible on the behalf of those we’re supposed to be serving, that time is now.

What’s your view of loyalty? Theoretically, a decision-making team, especially a leadership team, is supposed to prioritize a mission, the strategic objectives that help obtain that mission, and the key principles or values that guide and constrain acceptable action. In dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, that means that decisions should be driven by considerations such as, “How do we keep our people safe?” and “How do we take care of our key stakeholders — like employees and their families and our customers — while trying to stay afloat and be of service in this crisis?”

Too often, though, the composition and behavior of a leader’s team makes it clear that, implicitly or explicitly, what he or she values above all else is loyalty to him or herself. If you think this isn’t true, think of a leadership team you know a lot about and answer these additional questions:

Is the prevailing view that the way to get onto Leader X’s team is to be known as “a consistent truth teller even when uncomfortable” or, conversely, “an agreeable ‘yes man’”? In my nearly two decades of research and consulting, I’ve heard about the former only a handful of times but the latter hundreds of times.

The last time there was turnover on Leader X’s team, did the replacement(s) seem to reflect the prioritization of divergent views and expertise in the service of the mission or, rather, Leader X’s desire to shore up loyal followership? Here, too, my research suggests that far too often it’s the latter not the former. When business leaders say, “She just couldn’t get on board,” the unspoken rest of the sentence is too often “with my way of seeing or doing things” rather than “with our mission and key values.”

When people who leave a team or organization — voluntarily or involuntarily — are called disloyal or a traitor, we’d be well-served to ask if they were really those things, or simply someone who prioritized a mission, a principle, or constituency more than the leader’s own self-interest.

I realize that these are some pretty tough questions. But these are some really tough times!

GETTING THINGS RIGHT OR BEING RIGHT

What I’m calling for, implicitly, in posing these questions are leaders with humility, strong interpersonal skills, and the type of confidence that prioritizes getting things right over being right. I’m calling for leaders to exhibit a type of courage. It’s the courage required to admit “I don’t know it all” and “I need your help.” The courage to set one’s ego aside and be challenged and even shown to be wrong in the service of the organization’s mission. The courage to prioritize learning, and getting it right over feeling right.

Many leaders have spent a lifetime getting ahead by appearing to be stronger and smarter than others and always being in control. They’ve been handsomely rewarded in a world that loves individual heroes a lot more than great collaborators. Given that, it can feel like a sign of great vulnerability and weakness to invite public debate or make course corrections that are driven by others’ better information, ideas, or even judgment in a given situation. But if we’re going to ask subordinates to be courageous by speaking their truth to power, it seems only fair to ask for this kind of courageous leadership in return.

And if we’re going to get past COVID-19 with the fewest additional unnecessary deaths and least collateral damage, it’s the kind of leadership we need right now.

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