Do leadership, don’t learn it.


Don Quixote is the classic incompetent leader. Unqualified, willfully ignorant, headstrong, and unable to learn from experience. However, in a way, Quixote is also a great leader. He’s resilient, he wants to do right by everyone, he’s clever, and he is willing to sacrifice everything to reach his goal. One of the biggest ironies of Don Quixote is that his great leadership qualities are trash because he has no underlying competence. We even have an adjective for people like this: quixotic.

Despite his desire to do great things, Don Quixote fails. However, the prevailing theme of this massive novel is Don Quixote’s drive. At one point he tells his poor squire, Sancho, “Hunger is the best sauce in the world”. The author is intentionally misusing this proverb but it’s a great point: Don Quixote illustrates that if you’re hungry, the taste and content of your meal doesn’t matter to you as much.

This is what I want to write about today. What should it look like to be hungry to lead a team? How can you look past the absurdity and frustration you go through and end up successfully doing the actual things that make up leading?

A bit about team communication.

As a Producer I build teams of digital designers, developers, strategists, architects and other creative disciplines. There are lots of qualities about leaders that we could examine but I want to talk specifically about what they do in relation to the rest of their team and how that can be done by really anyone regardless of whether they’re a team lead. Let’s start with looking at how teams talk.

Circles representing team members and arrows representing communication.

With two people, a team is simple. It’s the smallest team possible, and it has a high probability of communicating clearly and effectively.

When you add a third member and fourth member, you see the strain on communication that happens. One additional person adds an additional communication channel for each other team member.

After the fourth team member, you’re starting to see how complex a communication network can be if everyone needs to talk to everyone else. With four team members there are 6 distinct channels. On top of those channels, as the team grows you have potentials for different social groupings within the team to form — for the team to break out into smaller groups and talk or work together. For example, with a team of 4 members, you have a potential for 11 different social groups: six groups of 2, four groups of 3, and one group of 4.

If you sift through research and studies you can find many different recommendations for team sizes for creative teams. The classic Magic Number Seven paper recommends 7 +/-2. Scrum recommends 6 +/-3. Researchers like Dave Snowden and Robin Dunbar outline a rule of 5–15–150 where 5 is the number of people tied to your short term memory, 15 people is the maximum amount with whom you can form deep trust, and 150 is the maximum number of people we can keep in our head. There’s also been research related to Parkinson’s Law that suggests any team less than 20 can be effective, except for teams of 8. While all of this research is interesting and sometimes funny, it’s not super conclusive — but you end up finding that 5 is a really common recommendation.

Tom Rogers, founder of, did a study on decision-making quality as it relates to team size and had some interesting findings that are easy to latch onto. His focus was on what statistics could comfortably assert when there are decisions with definite right and wrong answers being presented to groups of different sizes. His general finding was:

A team of 5 will make right decisions as a group while mitigating the complexity of communication as much as possible.

Difficulty of communication highly correlates with the number of possible social interactions. It’s just harder for teams to effectively share with each other as the team size grows.

When communication chunks up.

A seven-member team with circles representing people and arrows representing communication.

Back to the nifty diagram, here’s a seven-member team. The number of communication channels and potential social groups has exploded. You have 42 distinct communication channels between members and 120 different potential social groupings.

What’s most likely beginning to happen at this point is some type of communication fracturing and hierarchy. Whether it’s due to personality, team member skill sets, or company culture; different team members have coupled or grouped of to work and talk about specific parts of the project. When the full team is together, there are disparate opinions, insights, and competencies that create a unique thumbprint of communication — whether you intend for it to happen or not. That thumbprint usually looks something like this:

Team communication thumbprint where some members stop talking with others in order to streamline work and decision-making.

You may notice some team members are highly networked — talking with many people, and some team members are almost completely alone.

Making this harder, while certain communication platforms may be official, unofficial communication platforms exist such as email, iMessage, or just after-hours social gatherings. All of these form the body of how your team talks. Not surprisingly, the most networked team members tend to be the lead on the project. Sometimes company communication is set up that way, sometimes leaders just step up and communicate more. This is one aspect of what it looks like to lead a team:

Be a communicator within your team who’s able to coordinate individuals and groups to accomplish specific goals.

Figuring out what to talk about with whom.

So given the structure of how teams talk, what actually happens when they talk? How should team members relate to each other and interact about specifics of a project? In a perfect world, Teams would relate in a way that is something like this:

How teams talk, where the circles represent a team member’s understanding of their realm of expertise.

Each team member has at least a minimal understanding of every other team member’s area of expertise. All team members have a small baseline of expertise that they understand the same. Necessary team members with adjacent skill sets such as design and front end development understand a large portion of each other’s expertise and could even do each other’s work. In reality teams relate something closer to this:

Overlapping skill-sets on a team, with the red circle being the team leader.

How these skill sets overlap often dictates how communication channels are used and how social groups form. The leader tends to have a large skill set in comparison to the team, and she’s able to cross over with multiple other team members — even do their jobs. This is another aspect of what it means to be a leader:

Be a skilled practitioner who not only overlaps many skill sets on your team, but also creates conversation between those skill sets.

Team culture and dysfunctions.

With the forming of social groups, uncovering of skills overlaps, and establishment of a specific communication ecosystem; your team starts to have it’s own culture. Leadership plays a distinct role in forming and perpetuating this culture since leaders are the team’s central communication and interaction facilitator. For design teams, you can start to see patterns in these formations.

Creative teams have distinct dysfunctions, and they’re not always visible from the outside. One of the most frustrating experiences is having your team’s output criticized while your team’s specific struggles in working together go unaddressed from within your company. A good start for addressing the struggle is identifying and naming it. These are a few common dysfunctional teams, complete with nicknames:

Team roles as circles, with the leader being red.

The Monarch. This team leader gives all directives and makes all decisions. All work passes his/her desk before it goes to the wider team or client. Usually indicated by a singular person speaking to every aspect of a project at any time. Monarch teams have strong storyteller leaders because the leader understands all of the work and can explain any decision. However, team members skills aren’t frequently utilized to the full extent because they’re limited by the leader.

The Confab is a team that’s artificially flattened, which ends up stranding team members. Everyone appears equal. In reality, the team leader is just absent or afraid to make decisions. Uncertainty abounds:

  • Who’s responsible for what?
  • Where is everything in process?
  • What is “good enough”?
  • Who do I show this to?

The Confab is usually indicated by a Director who doesn’t know project status. Team meetings are status on what’s done and not done followed by hemming and hawing about fears and next steps, then a lot of hoping that things get better. When a Confab team succeeds it feels like a miracle and nobody saw it coming. Most often, it regularly fails objectives and nobody knew what was going wrong with the project until it was too late to salvage.

This team is one of my favorites. The Zombie Apocalypse is chiefly indicated by small pockets of people highly affecting each other’s work. While distinct disciplines flourish, the overall project lurches back and forth depending on who’s turn it is to plug in their piece. Team meetings are like meetings between guerrilla groups, with each member prepared to represent their faction.

Zombie apocalypse leaders are highly effective. These teams may have strident disagreements when they’re all together since not every party has been involved with the others very frequently — instead being off on their own, killing their zombies to survive; however, they tend to be successful and the leaders seem to maintain multiple ecosystems of skillsets and tie them together powerfully.

This is Broadway.

In a Broadway team, everyone understands his or her role distinctly, and within the broader project. Anyone can tell the story of the full project, but it’s through the lens of their own contribution. Generally, there’s a clear sense of purpose and ownership over immediate tasks.

Broadway leaders understand the purpose of the work being done by the team and ensure each team member is fully informed and utilized to that end. They tend to be master storytellers and motivators. They also tend to have a high bar of excellence. If a team member is underperforming, Broadway leaders will frequently take the time and effort to make that member successful. If they can’t, they’ll take that team member’s role — giving it to someone else or simply doing the work. Broadway teams are highly functional and are typically very successful.

Tying it all together.

It’s fun critiquing team patterns and taking a look at how things break down. But where do we go from here? What does being hungry to lead look like in the context of your team?

Getting people talking, teaching teammates, and being the missing link.

Get people talking. Collaboration can’t truly happen if your team is silo-ed, and becoming the conduit for that collaboration is a key element of leading. The ability to understand who’s not talking, whether it’s necessary that they do talk, and then facilitating the conversation is invaluable.

Teach your teammates. Many people balk at this one: If I’m not the leader and don’t have the most experience, what business do I have teaching other teammates? Shouldn’t someone else do that? No! Teaching isn’t only about the transfer of information from one person who knows a lot to another person who doesn’t. It’s about research, communication skill, encapsulating and contextualizing information for others, and then effort — putting in the time to bring someone else along. In fact, teaching others is a proven way to become better, yourself.

It’s called the protege effect. It’s the proven wisdom behind the old adage: We teach best what we need to learn ourselves. Teaching involves communicating with someone being taught — handling their questions, understanding their understanding of the material and guiding learning. All of these further motivate the teacher and reinforce the responsibility to clearly and accurately communicate; to understand a concept from multiple perspectives.

Finally, this is the hardest way to do leader-y things: If there’s a gap in your team and nobody is filling it, simply fill the gap yourself. Your willingness to be scrappy and figure out the hard problems will create a stronger team and put you in a position to impact everyone else’s work in a measurable way.

A few inspirational thoughts.

Wrapping up with some bonus ideas, here. Beyond the practical steps to lead is the visionary. Imaginative, Insightful, Creative, Bold. These are words we often hear people use to describe great leaders. What does that even mean, and how do you get to be that way? Should we want to be that way?

One of my favorite teachers on creativity is Michael Michalko (mee-chal-ko). He wrote a book called Thinkertoys and he’s laid a lot of track you can follow on what it means to be creative and lead. Here’s a quote from Thinkertoys:

We are tacitly taught that we exist and just are the way we are. We have been taught that all people are true to their own genes, environment, and nature. We are conditioned to be objects. We are taught to be “me” instead of “I”…The “me” is always limited because it is a passive object rather than an active subject. The “me” doesn’t act; it is acted upon by outside forces. When you see yourself as an object, you believe how others (parents, teachers, peers, colleagues, and so on) describe you. You become that.
You might want to be an artist, but others might tell you that you have no talent, training, or temperament to be an artist…The person who believes he is a subject is frank, open-minded, sincerely going ahead, facing the situation freely and looking for ways to make things work and get things done. The person who believes she is an object is inhibited, pushed, driven, acting by command or intimidation, has a one-track mind, and is always looking for reasons things can’t be done or why things can’t work.

Here’s what I love about this quote: nobody should tell you what you should or shouldn’t strive to be. That’s your job. If you want to give leading a shot, that’s your call. If your boss or company doesn’t approve, find another employer who’s up for giving you a chance. Your drive to figure out how to lead and make a team successful may end up being one of the most valuable things you bring to a team. That cues up the third and final aspect of stepping up to be a team leader:

Be the driving force that finds a solution to the problems at hand.

I hope this makes each of you feel that aspiring to lead a project is a good thing. Most of my teams could use more leading from the ground up, even when the leader is performing superbly. That’s what I want to inspire you to do: just start doing leadership and see where it takes you.