People are not one-dimensional. We all have aptitudes and attitudes, and what we do with them defines us. No one person can do it all. Each of us has a gift—a superpower—that when practiced and honed can be an important component of the team we serve. The biggest obstacle to personal and team success is the ego. It can lull us into thinking we are better than we are, it can block us from accepting better ideas, and it can turn away the very people who could help us succeed. In building a team, a team leader’s first order of business is understanding her strengths and weaknesses. The better a leader knows herself, the more readily she can surround herself with people who possess complementary strengths and perspectives.
Remember that we can control only three things: our mental, emotional, and physical capabilities. What we focus on drives how we behave, which determines what we do. This process for individual action is the same for team actions. Your job as team builder and leader is to develop a team that embodies these seven traits, to direct the team’s focus, and to set an example of the behaviors that will drive the actions required to succeed.
As you scale from a team of one to a team of many, your greatest challenge is to connect with them, the first step in activating the CARE framework.
We all develop our own styles of connecting, but the building blocks remain the same. No matter how we use our physical, mental, and emotional communication skills to connect with people, communication is a powerful way to build trust and create the caring conditions you want your teammates to emulate. The details matter, from how you listen to how you deal with bad news. If you yell and scream when something goes wrong, two things happen: others will yell and scream when they are delivered bad news; even worse, many won’t even risk delivering bad news for fear of your yelling and screaming. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Connecting with your team is rewarding in its own right, for humans thrive on connections with others, but it’s essential if you want to accomplish an OTH goal—an over-the-horizon goal. Those kinds of goals are the most challenging because they are unknown, and our brains don’t like the unknown. However, OTH goals are exactly the type that unstoppable teams can tackle.
You probably do some of these actions already, but don’t try to do too much at once. Remember, connecting with all kinds of people is a process of trial and error, and your leadership limits are determined by the diversity of personalities whom you can connect with. Don’t despair if you don’t get everything right at first; your commitment to keep trying will also earn you trust.
The goals that most unstoppable teams aspire to reach exist beyond the line of sight of any one individual. The team leader’s role is to help team members see well beyond the visible horizon and find ways to surpass real and/or imagined limitations.
Use the five A’s of Achievement: Aspire, Assume, Assess, Assure, and Appreciate. Taken together, these five actions form the second part of the CARE loop.
- Bring the goal to life by helping team members personally connect to it. Give them hope and a reason to believe that their collective efforts can achieve the task.
- Give your team the space, resources, and confidence to do their jobs.
- Initiate performance assessments frequently and transparently to avoid surprises and unify the team.
- Encourage and reassure your team of their purpose, progress, and perspective; help team members overcome their fears and doubts.
- Show enthusiasm and gratitude for both individual efforts and team progress.
Achievement is rarely contained within any one team, department, or company. In addition, fear of the unknown is a reality for every team with high aspirations. It’s not something to be avoided. Indeed, the best leaders turn fear on its head by helping their teams find personal meaning in the goal, by assuming that the team has what it takes to succeed (and providing what’s missing if necessary), by providing constructive feedback and assessments as the team makes progress (or goes off track), and by showing all members that they are valued and appreciated for their contributions. As you do this, you will begin to cultivate the next element that unstoppable teams need: respect.
Leading a team can be stressful, and when under pressure, we may act in ways that make matters worse, triggering negative responses in others rather than defusing tense moments and building mutual respect. Leaders can be constant sources of strength for their teams or their teams’ worst enemies. We have our emotions to thank for both of those outcomes. As neuroscience shows, our emotions can overwhelm us in ways both positive and negative, especially so when your team gives you bad news or the smell of failure is in the air. Here’s one technique to help manage emotions and avoid heat-of-the-moment reactions.
Stop talking, stand tall, and take three deep, controlled breaths. Breathe in for three seconds, hold for three seconds, and exhale for three seconds, asking a question at the end of each breath.
- What happened?
- What were you trying to achieve?
- What are you going to do about it?
Remember, your team’s personality is a reflection of the team leader’s personality. If you allow your emotions to cloud your judgment, if you snap back without first seeking to understand the whole picture, you are setting the wrong mood. By remaining calm (that’s what deep breathing can help you with) and by asking questions to help you understand what’s going on, what challenges the team faces—what negative emotions and fears they may be confronting—you will help the team feel respected, and they will feel safe enough to share vital information with you that may save your mission from failure. As the leader, your actions are always under review; you are constantly being observed by your teammates. How you handle yourself during the most trying times (failure, a great struggle, or both) is the measure of your leadership. When in doubt: breathe, ask, and repeat!
To empower people is to give them responsibility and authority. This may sound like a fine line of demarcation, but it’s a significant distinction in the team-building process. Giving people the authority to make decisions without being forced to check in with the boss for approval opens the way for them to start thinking of themselves as owners, not employees. They, too, must embrace the CARE loop in their dealings with others. The CARE loop helps keep your current team aligned, inspired, and empowered, but ideally it becomes a tool that all members use to empower themselves and take on bigger leadership roles.
Nothing shows people you care more than dedicating time to helping them learn new skills. Be careful, however: telling people what you know (and what they don’t know) isn’t the same as teaching them.
Think of education as a triangle. Each side of the triangle expresses one of the three ways to educate someone, and ideally you want to be creating an equilateral triangle in which all three sides are equal.
- LEAPFROGGING: This is in-house and often informal training delivered via lessons learned, best practices, debriefings, or e-mail updates shared among teammates.
- EXTERNALITY: This tends to be more formal training provided by outside professionals, often representing unusual or diverse fields of expertise.
- ON-THE-JOB TRAINING (OJT): On-the-job training gives people the chance to put their knowledge to work. This learning-by-doing approach may include mentoring and coaching as well.
Education is the first step in empowering people to go beyond the expected, but it requires active engagement from the leader. No sooner does someone return from an educational class in SEAL Team than their new learnings are used on a training mission. Snipers get to take shots, jumpmasters spot and send out jumpers, drivers lead convoys—and they do it all in front of their teammates. Three things happen when you let your teammates demonstrate their new skills to their peers: you build confidence, you build respect, and you encourage them all to keep developing their new skills.