Leadership & Management Employee Experience

Great Leaders are Great Team Members

Leaders everywhere should take this lesson to heart: great team members don’t have to be leaders, but great leaders are always great team members.

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When I was a sophomore in college, I was admitted to the University of Southern California’s Warren Bennis Leadership program. I was one of 20 students chosen to embark on a 2-year leadership exploration so I could go into the world and take Gandhi up on his pioneering advice: “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

After a 5 month long application process, I excitedly told my roommate my news. She was happy for me, but also concerned.

She told me that over the course of her previous summer internship, she learned that she did not like being the main leader. She liked to be second-in-command, and she was annoyed that everyone places such high acclaim on only one role in organizations. Everyone can’t be the leader; what about all the other members of teams who have vital responsibilities? She had a great point.

Just like graduates of Ivy league institutions say ‘Harvard’ or ‘Yale’ and ears perk, people are obsessed with leaders and sometimes that clouds reality. Overvaluing leaders, but undervaluing proven high-achievers who prefer roles with less assumed esteem is dangerous because it can leave such employees feeling under-appreciated and such leaders feeling over-inflated.

This issue has many roots - outdated organizational structures, deep-seated individualism, the pay gap between CEOs and general employees - but I’m going to focus on one: too often, leaders are taught to feel above their team, rather than to be members of their team.

A recent report found that 83% of employees wish to provide more input to their managers. That same study found that 66% of employees feel they would perform just as well or better without input from their bosses. Employees don’t feel they require managerial assistance, and managers don’t reach out to their teams for input. This chasm between managers and their teams is indicative of one-sided accountability; employees feel beholden to meet their bosses needs, but bosses may not feel beholden to their employees.

Closing the Gap

Firstly, leaders can begin to close this gap with regular and meaningful conversations. 1:1s shouldn’t just be a time for managers to ask a curt ‘how are you;’ it should be when both parties are able to sit on equal ground and check in. Digging deeper into what motivates employees, what their short and long term goals are, and how managers can help facilitate these things is the foundation of a balanced relationship. In turn, managers can ask for feedback by giving their employees opportunities to express things they appreciate and things they’d like to change. Both parties can continually monitor themselves and cohesively time 1:1s weekly, biweekly, or as needed. The most important component is that both managers and team members should feel respected and heard.

Secondly, according to their 2010 study, Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that gratitude is a key ingredient to healthy teams. When individuals of a team are made to feel appreciated and recognized, they feel inspired to work harder.

Lastly, I’ll never forget what I learned from my roommate, and leaders everywhere should take this lesson to heart: great team members don’t have to be leaders, but great leaders are always great team members.

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