Friday confession: hypocrisy

I need to confess that I’m a hypocrite. I don’t try to be, but I am. I recently became convicted of two practices that expose a conflict between my actions and my stated beliefs about teamwork. I’ve always rated myself highly in terms of building and working with teams. Yet these two practices don’t back up my talk. These are a bit random, but it’s a Friday.

1. My favorite TV shows are anti-teamwork. I’m a fan of House, the show about Dr. Gregory House and his band of disciples. While the circumstances provide opportunity for his understudies to work and live together, in a sense forming a stilted community forged by common hardship (their boss), Dr. House demonstrates no ability or desire to draw them into his confidence or to invest in them. His entire driver is ego, and he keeps them around to feed his reputation as the answer man. When he’s not present, their efforts at medical problem solving are futile. He has to be the hero.

Then there’s The Closer. While she’s a lot more likable than Dr. House, Brenda is just like him in that her staff are helpless without her to swoop in and draw out a confession. Why doesn’t she equip them to be able to do the same thing? In her case, ego is less obvious; she needs to be needed.

2. I have not participated in a team sport in more than a decade. I love pickup volleyball and soccer games. Neither sport is an individual effort, so on its face, these games are opportunities to practice teamwork. Right? Not quite. Yes, you are thrown into a group who have to pull together to win, but nothing rides on the score, and most players participate for either enjoyment, exercise or personal glory. The more competitive (like me) have to get a good spike or a goal or even a great assist to walk away at the end of the game with personal satisfaction. There is no commitment to a group of other individuals, no pain of practice, no community of common experience. Call it a working group, but don’t call it a team.

So if teamwork is my passion, then how can I practice what I believe even in my viewing habits and my leisure activities? For starters, I guess I’ve got to join a league. That’s going to be difficult, given the travel realities for my new job.

My viewing habits may be surprisingly difficult to adjust. To tell you the truth, I can’t think of a single U.S. TV show that promotes teamwork. America is built on individualism, and our stories support the myth of personal glory and effort. Every group has to have a hero. Can you think of a TV show that glorifies teamwork? Thinking back, perhaps the A-Team? Movies are a bit more common. The Dirty Dozen? Apollo 13 was a good one.

What are your favorite team movies? What about TV? Someone out there needs to redeem that medium for me.

Part V: Young leaders give authority away

Young leaders give authority away. I’m not necessarily talking about delegation, but about how young leaders are less concerned with who gets the credit and more concerned with the accomplishments of a team.

They look for people who have a passion and a vision for a particular area and turn that area of responsibility over to them – to succeed or fail in glorious fashion. The result, with this wary but entrepreneurial generation, might be an incredibly creative idea that’s not ruined by top-down management. Or it might be a half-baked idea that falls flat. But a generation of students who have been told they can be anything they want to be and who have helped develop the technology to flatten the world wants an equal voice. They want a chance to speak into the process and try new things. The end product takes on the qualities of the team, and may look entirely different from anything the leader envisioned at the beginning.

My own observation is that young leaders get incredibly frustrated at the turf battles over who will get credit for the work. Let’s just get it done! The greed and selfishness that shows up in setting all the parameters up front has kept many a good idea from getting off the ground. For instance, April’s Wired magazine comments that the turf war over multitouch technology and gesture-based computing is “going to be ugly — and potentially fatal to the movement.” Group ownership of an idea and shared credit allows quicker response times and more creativity. Open sourcing almost always works better than closed.

Of course, this teamwork characteristic has big implications when it comes to interviews and resumes. A great accomplishment listed on a resume might require a follow-up question from the observant interviewer on what that person’s role was in the success of the team.

So, why can young leaders freely give away authority? (Am I not casting an idyllic view of the new generation of leaders? Probably, but not intentionally. I just think the new generations have different sins than their predecessors.) Young leaders are often simply not attracted to the trappings of power. No amount of money is incentive enough to offset the cost in time spent with friends and family. No perks can offset the long hours and increased stress. Money is not the idol it used to be. So when the goal is not consolidation of power, authority does not need to be hoarded.

What does a leader look like? Part 1

That last post brings me back to the core of my blog: what does a leader look like in a postmodern context?

As I’ve observed my generation’s forays into leadership — including our new president, who was born on the cusp of Generation X in 1963 — I suspect a number of things will prove true about Gen X leaders as a whole. Granted, these are stereotypes and the characteristics may well prove to have positive and negative ramifications. I want to dig into what a leader looks like over the next month, but I’m going to be sporatic until I take my new position in April. Hang in there with me, and set your RSS feed.

I think Gen X leaders are not always immediately identifiable. They may not be the most vocal or the one up front. When you walk into a room of young people, you’re likely to note a few extroverts who stand out for being the most vocal. A few seem to command the ears of the rest though they’re not as outspoken. Others might carry the right technology or always seem to wear the right clothes. But the one in charge – the one who called the group together and did the behind the scenes work to get them there and subtly shift the conversation – may not be any of these.

Leadership is influence, after all. You can have a huge amount of influence without being the one in front. I gave an example of this kind of “back row leadership” in my very first post. Here’s another: do you remember in Amazing Grace how William Wilberforce was the vocal one in the House of Commons, but prime minister William Pitt was secretly pulling strings without offering any emotion from the floor? There was no question that Pitt was the power broker, though Wilberforce got the headlines.

So, why not lead from the front? There could be a lot of reasons, but let me suggest a few:

1. We have an iconic view of leaders. To be a leader, you have to have the complete package: a face for magazine covers, great speaking ability, amazing organizational aptitude and abundant confidence, empathy and wisdom. Who can measure up to the image? Either leaders are larger than life or they’re failing gloriously. Or both.

2. I think there is a strong preference for avoiding risk. It’s easier to sit in the back row and take potshots at the person at the front. The one at the front is putting his neck out, and that takes courage and confidence — two traits that seem to be lacking among many young people. Perhaps we’ve been too sheltered. Anyway, it’s easier to influence someone else to get out front and take the risk instead.

3. Younger leaders prefer facilitation. It’s a philosophical difference. We like to do accomplish things together, and sorting out the roles to recognize success gets messy when it was done as a team. Maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, after all.

4. I think many in my generation see power as a trap. They’re not interested in all the perks that go along with position. No amount of power or money can make up for the long hours, the cost to family, the stress or the inability to wear jeans to work. Better to keep your freedom and your balance.