Recently, I was reminded of an experience during a mission’s trip to the Ukraine during summer break one year in college. One afternoon, we visited the home of one of our hosts, who proceeded to feed us small wafer cookies. Being Americans, who were tired of eating borscht, we were thrilled and gobbled up the cookies in our hunger. As we were finishing up, I noticed our host nibbling on the same cookie with which he had started. While we were eating every cookie in sight, our host was carefully conserving his cookie.
What I didn’t realize was that cookies were scarce for our host. They were a special treat and a big expense. He willingly and intentionally sacrificed his scarce cookies for us, his guests, even though we were unaware of the sacrifice he was making.
Of course, this reminds me of how we tend to get this backwards when leading our teams: we want to eat the cookies.
The team is not there to serve the leader. The leader is there to serve the team. The team eats the cookies that the leader sacrifices to provide, not the other way around.
This is important in my own work of helping leaders build functional, collaborative, and aligned teams. For example, when I facilitate the strategic team process, the leader’s perspective matters. Their perspective and motive dictates how successful the team will be in the process. When the leader has the perspective that the team is serving them, it’s tough going. When the leader has the perspective that they are serving the team, everything and anything becomes possible.
Recently, I saw this play out in practical terms. During a strategic team offsite I was facilitating, the leader told the team that they were “not very good at [the topic we were discussing].” That willingness to be vulnerable and serve the team opened up a completely new conversation. The team gobbled up the cookies and everyone, including the leader, was better off because of it.
When a leader gets this perspective backwards, a leader will:
- Focus on the actual work to get done to the exclusion of the health of the team.
- Not put in the extra effort and energy to constantly communicate with team members to ensure their team experience is extraordinary, engaging, and clear.
- Accept poor behavior and a mediocre culture.
- Put pressure on the team to perform (in an unhealthy way).
- Not take the time to evaluate themselves and how they can be a better leader.
- Ask the team to do work without giving them a clear picture of the overall strategy.
Perhaps this can be summed up by this quote I recently read from Joe Calloway: “Strong leaders prepare a team to win. Weak leaders pressure a team to win.”
When the leader gets it right, and is there to serve the team, they will:
- Clarify what is actually most important for the team to accomplish (spoiler alert: it’s not everything).
- Ensure that each team member is 100% clear on their role and how they contribute to the team’s and organization’s objectives.
- Create a team culture with clear behaviors that attract and retain people and foster an environment for everyone to do their best work.
- Take difficult action to eliminate poor and toxic behavior.
- Make every team member feel like they are part of a team – something bigger than themselves.
This requires the leader to:
- Constantly communicate.
- Ask questions and listen to what’s going on with their team.
- Say no to what is not most important to the team’s success.
- Decide on what is most important to the team’s success.
- Actively work to support and run interference for the team.
- Initiate difficult conversations.
- Take unnecessary burdens off of the shoulders of their team and place it on their own shoulders.
- Take action on behaviors that are detrimental to a healthy team culture.
- Spend extra time and energy even when no one notices they are doing so.
This is extra work and not easy. It takes sacrifice, sometimes unnoticed. But it’s the leader’s job to do the above. No one else can do it. When the leader does not embrace these, everyone else in the organization suffers.
Which perspective do you have as a leader? If you’re not sure, reach out and I’ll send you a quick, easy, and private self-assessment.
Let’s each become leaders who, while many times imperfect, strive to give our team the cookies.