Stacking the Deck
Team resilience lies in playing the game, not just the hand
I have the privilege of leading a small team of humans who design stuff for a living. Over the past few years, our company has moved increasingly toward a “team of teams” model, where our organizational design is expressed through delegation and inverted authority structures. In short: lead where you are and try not to meddle. The pandemic, with the requirement to work remotely without compromising excellence, has only deepened my appreciation for the model.
Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal’s book on management, Team of Teams—rooted in his experiences coordinating decentralized efforts against even more decentralized terrorists—is laden with things you already knew, but of which it’s good to be reminded. Here’s one:
The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.
Leader as enabler—I think that’s exactly right. And I’ve received the gift of many such leaders as role models. I’ve been the beneficiary of working for organizations in which leadership works to delegate and distribute very real decision-making authority.
But in my experience, these ideas can be quite challenging to implement practically as managers—even if your organization is flat. Even if decision-making authority is situated at the nearest reasonable proximity. Even if team size is kept small and agile. You’re still dealing with people, and people are incredibly complex. The humans on my team—myself included—change at least as often and unexpectedly as McChrystal’s theater of operations.
When I honestly assess my own career, I can see that I’ve moved in and out of dozens of different seasons. How I view myself, my work, my colleagues, and my effectiveness can shift without me even noticing. Leaders seeking resilient teams should make the effort to lead into those changing conditions.
Building on McChrystal’s ecosystem metaphor and extending his vivid illustrations of resilience through subsidiarity…