It's all about the team
The concept of teamwork has become borderline cliché. We hear and read that collaboration is important, that working together makes us stronger, that “teamwork makes the dream work.” We know these things are true. We preach them to our children, we emphasize them with our staff, we remind ourselves how important it is to work and get along with, solicit and accept the ideas of others. Yet, we so often forget. Or perhaps more accurately, we ignore. Particularly in moments of crisis, high stress, extreme emotions, or personal doubt, we tend to revert to more individualistic notions, believing either that we alone have the answers, or that we have a duty to navigate the rough waters ourselves and leave everyone else safe on shore. Both sentiments are dangerous for culture, productivity, personal well-being, and the well-being of our teams. I have discovered that while I may have some of the answers within myself, stress and uncertainty sometimes limit my ability to fully access and most effectively apply those answers. When I take a moment to talk challenges out or seek out the input of others, I more quickly uncover nuances, flaws, and possibilities that I may not have reached on my own. When I truly rely on my team’s ideas and solutions (and not just say that I do), I can expand my frame of reference, better understand the context for moving forward, and ultimately improve the quality, efficacy, and effectiveness of future actions. In the end, choosing to rely on what we as individuals know, limits our ability to grow and exceed expectations, especially in the long-term.
Furthermore, choosing to suffer alone, to shield others from the pain, frustration, stress, anxiety, fear, or doubt that we are experiencing, reduces our ability to build compassionate, responsive, and collaborative workplaces, relationships, families, and communities. While leadership is sometimes about self-sacrifice, I find that more often it is about letting people in, remaining open and honest, and sharing vulnerability, suffering, uncertainty, and even fear. As human-beings, we seek to be included, to have access to information that affects us, to believe that our leaders are both in control and trustworthy. And while our teams and partners may not need to know everything, lack of transparency inevitably depreciates trust, engagement, and security, ironically the very feelings we try to hide. Often, the people doing the hard work on the ground, know and hear more than we think they do. Perhaps more dangerously, the people on the ground often THINK they know things that may not actually be true or fully accurate. For example, a few years ago, my agency was forced to lay people off due to funding limitations. While we heard from our coworkers that they were moving on, the leaders of our agency said nothing, presumably not to let us know that they were experiencing funding challenges. At the same time as they were trying to protect us from the challenges our organization was facing, their silence made us wonder about and fear for our own jobs. Moreover, because our feelings about losing members of our team were neither named nor addressed, we wondered and formulated our own conclusions about who was going to take on the extra work, whether our projects would continue, why those coworkers were the ones to be laid off, and how/if our agency was going to still exist in a year. Our self-devised and self-perpetuated ideas were much more hazardous to our organization’s well-being than the truth that we had lost one funding stream that only fully covered the two people who were let go.
Putting our teams first and valuing teamwork means that leaders must be transparent in both good and tough times, in moments of success and failure, in states of optimism and fear. Self-sacrifice and concealing information, while perhaps noble in our minds, robs our people of their basic needs of safety, love, belongingness, and being a part of something bigger than themselves. Of course, there are situations that cannot be shared with the larger team for reasons of confidentiality or people’s credibility, and undeniably, there are moments of crisis that require swift action without buy-in or group participation. However, I have learned that at the end of the day (even the worst days), our people are our single most important asset. We must therefore lead in ways that foster the collaboration we expect, and we must be honest about our own transgressions, limitations, and failures so that our people know and feel that it is natural and human to err, fail, and not have all the answers.
My biggest triumphs so far in life, the moments that stand out as most memorable and most significant to my trajectory, almost all hinged on the work, sweat, perseverance, and ideas of others. I truly believe that success is limited when we choose to work alone, that our potential is stymied when we put ourselves above our people. I am the leader that I am today because of the amazing, tireless, committed, and fearless teams I have had the honor of leading over my life so far. These people have challenged me and celebrated me, pushed me and pulled me, nurtured, supported, and improved me (hopefully at the same time as I did the same for them). They taught me the power of saying, “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know.” They loved me through my successes and my mistakes. Truly, any success I have achieved and any wisdom on leadership I have to share is based on their success and their wisdom. In the end, it is all about the team. Words cannot describe my gratitude.
Shout outs to my amazing teams at/in the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement, PIT, Project LAUNCH, Queens United Middle School, the Child Center of NY, ExpandED Schools, and the Pathways Fellowship. Additional shout outs to the people who taught me that burying my feelings and trying to carry the world on my shoulders is not usually the most productive or rewarding path (I’m looking at you Mom, Dad, Alanna, and Nick—thanks for being my forever team!).