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Leadership should be a team sport. Here's why

with different backgrounds and different perspectives.getty

When articles, podcasts, or speakers start with a cliché about the speed at which the world is changing, perhaps with a reference to generative AI or the recent pandemic, it's tempting to hold back. What else is new?

Even though change is happening all the time, managing change – or coping with change – can be very challenging. There is even an acronym attributed to the military that describes what leaders experience on a daily basis. It's called VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Or as the authors of a Harvard Business Review article lightheartedly described the phenomenon a few years ago: “Hey, it’s crazy out there!”

Frankly, leading in such an environment is probably more than any one individual can handle or even should attempt – especially in a large and complex organization. Nobody can do everything.

That's not to say the legendary rock star leader's days are over. In the business world, there will always be a number of larger-than-life industrial and institutional giants like Jeff Bezos, Jamie Dimon, Bill Gates and Satya Nadella who command all the attention the moment they walk into a room.

But they are the exceptions. And we don't always know what's going on behind the scenes every day. For more than four decades, for example, Charlie Munger made many of the decisions that led to Berkshire Hathaway's financial success and helped establish Warren Buffett's reputation as the “Sage of Omaha.” The late Mr. Munger seemed content to be Berkshire Hathaway's less celebrated number two.

The reality is: Even the superhero CEOs who are constantly in the news can't see around every corner. And they can't single-handedly get the massive organizations they lead to quickly adapt to every entirely new challenge they face in today's world. It is not possible.

What many large companies need instead is stable, consistent leadership – with CEOs and other leaders focused on assembling, empowering, and enabling rock-solid teams, team leaders, and talent to sense, respond, and adapt. This is what success in a VUCA environment requires.

What kind of teams? Diverse teams, and I'm not just talking about diversity in the usual sense. Since human nature is such, our preference is to surround ourselves with people we feel comfortable around. People with whom we have a lot in common. That's what people do.

For example, a study conducted several years ago by the online job site Indeed found that 37% of managers “who said they came from a top college said they only hire candidates from top institutions.”

Not only can this create blind spots, it can also shrink the talent pool and potentially prevent you from discovering great talent in unexpected places.

Yes, we want teams – especially leadership teams – to build strong personal connections and definitely get along. The bigger challenge for many CEOs, however, is bringing different viewpoints to the table before making big decisions – because even in many C-suites there is a tendency to “go along to get along,” as the saying goes. For this reason, leaders need to surround themselves with people with different backgrounds and perspectives so that they can arrive at a more informed vision and strategy for their organization.

Years ago, I helped a senior leadership team work on culture change. The CEO knew that the company – a long-time market leader – needed to change the way it worked to drive the innovation and agility required for digital transformation so that it could remain a market leader.

We've spent a lot of time focusing on behaviors required of business leaders. One of them was a productive disagreement: that is, expressing one's opinion.

When the leadership team members rated themselves on the various target behaviors, one thing stood out: They rated themselves exceptionally poorly – when there was productive disagreement.

When we shared this assessment with the CEO and leadership team, the conversation went something like this:

CEO (sounding shocked and surprised): “What do you mean you don’t speak your mind?” We are the leadership team. We meet every week. Why are we meeting when no one speaks up and says what they really think?”

Leadership team: Silence.

Leadership team: more silence.

Leadership team: really uncomfortable silence.

Business Unit Manager (finally): “Well, I’ll say it… It’s not safe to disagree with you.”

Dead silence.

CEO: “Tell me more…”

They then had a productive (heavily moderated) conversation about the team's dynamics. The company leader boldly stated that the CEO had strong opinions and that every time someone disagreed with him, he disagreed. The CEO was promoted from within and did not appreciate the new dynamic that emerged when he moved from peer to responsible. They worked it out and made some changes, such as the CEO being the last to speak on agenda items, dissenting opinions on everything being sought, any issues where agreement was reached quickly being questioned, and many decisions were left to their teams to develop.

The gist of the story is that leaders in hierarchical organizations—virtually any organization—must 1) strive to reach the diverse and divergent views of their teams; 2) listen and discuss, not argue; and 3) transition from hierarchical decision-making to true teamwork whenever possible.

It may sound cheesy – like the oft-used phrase about having to disagree without being disagreeable – but “teamwork makes the dream come true.”

Follow me up LinkedIn. Checkout my website.

I am Managing Director and Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group, lead the Future of Work program and am a member of the company's think tank, the BCG Henderson Institute.

Since joining BCG in 1994, I have learned that the most important (and challenging) lever for change is people. I work with companies across the global economy on leadership empowerment and culture change. HR issues along the entire employee life cycle; and digital upskilling to unlock new sources of speed, productivity, value, engagement and impact. I used my practice at BCG to create and scale a program to improve BCG's culture and work-life balance. Today, the program – known as PTO (Predictability, Teaming & Open Communication) – is a key factor in BCG's consistent ranking as one of the top employment companies.

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