Monday, August 15, 2016

Leaders Need to Play a Different Game

This is one of those ideas that just keeps popping up again and again. That one of the things that separates leaders from managers is the game that they are playing.

It's not always obvious. No one should be faulted for thinking that everyone on the team is playing the same game. Indeed, that's a natural human tendency, and the topic of innumerable books about how to manage teams. We're all in this together!

But the job of the leader is very different than those of the managers that report to him or her. Many of us work in highly complex environments, with cross-functional teams comprised of stakeholders in and out of our business units or even our organizations. And leaders of those kind of teams have to keep their eye on a different game than the one everyone else is playing.

What game is that? Well, it goes a little something like this.

Set the high-level goals that will determine the team's success. Communicate them clearly and consistently, and then step out of the way and let the team do its work. Monitor what the team is doing, but don't intervene unless you see something happening that does not serve the high-level goals. And when team members come to you with questions, do not give them the answers. Instead ask them to make the decision based on what they think will best serve the high-level goals.

I'm playing one of these games right now--with a project and a team whose complexity rivals anything I have ever experienced before. And I have been tempted many times to rush in and start making some tactical decisions. But whenever I have strayed in that direction, I have discovered that the team gets mired in the minutiae of the moment--my decision being contested because it runs counter to someone else's understanding of what we are doing. Playing the game at that level, in other words, leads to disagreement and stalemate.

So I take a step back. What are we trying to achieve here? Do we have a clear and common understanding? If we're going to argue, let's argue about that, and let's not stop until we have agreement. And once there, then go ahead and make any tactical decision you want--as long as it conforms to the objective we've just agreed to.

It works. Not only does it keep you out of the weeds, but it leads to better tactical decisions, even among a group of people who work for different business units or organizations.

It may be playing a different game than the one you're used to, but if you're the leader of one of these cross-functional teams, it may be the only game that matters.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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