It’s always gone without saying that the first step in team formation is to identify a leader. That’s why the team member roles we defined in ME 316 last Wednesday caught many off guard. We defined roles of Builder, Compliance, Reporter, Theory, and Liaison for each team. Note no “Leader.”

Some of you that know my background are immediately saying, “But Jake, you’re being a hypocrite, you led almost every team you’ve been on since elementary school.” While that’s mostly true, and I’ve won with more teams than not, for some reason, I stopped seeking leadership positions after high school. Why I stopped when I was so successful is the question.

The quarterback and running backs are always the team leaders in football. However, watch any play and the first to make contact – the starters of momentum – those giving the play time to develop – are always the offensive lineman. And it only takes a few cleat marks up your backside to realize one of the most important roles of being an offensive lineman is to know when to get out of the way. One of the coaches my senior year in high-school had a thought, “If Leachman is our biggest and strongest player, let’s make a running play where he carries the ball!” We did. The running back screwed up the block and I tripped over a white line.

The reality is that high-performance teams are diverse. We all have essential roles to play. But because of a memetic imbalance in American society we idol worship the quarterbacks, the CEOs, the department chairs, aka the “leaders” as someone we should all aspire to become. That’s how cultures throw juice into power structures. I’ve repeatedly seen talented teams squandered by power hungry individuals trying to get the line of “leader” on their resume when it didn’t fit their skill set. That’s not to say that power-hungry individuals can’t make good leaders, it’s saying that it is very difficult for power hungry individuals to create a sustainable, high-performing team environment that positively benefits the team and society.

One of the roles we defined does accomplish many of the tasks bestowed upon the traditional team leader. It’s the Liaison:


Being the Liaison is hard work. You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel and think ahead in the play to mitigate potential threats. You’ve got to communicate and manage conflicts efficiently. You’ve got to be the diversely capable person that just makes it work, especially when nobody is specialized to. It’s not about forcing things, it’s about quietly and selflessly creating the conditions necessary to promote cohesion and performance.

When you’ve got the right skill set for being a Liaison you’ll know it. It’s when the rest of the team corners you in your work area and says, “we need you to do this because nobody else can.” When they’re right, it’s hard to say no.

(Update 2020)

“How do we know where we’re at on the spectrum of leader vs. liaison?”

I wouldn’t consider it a spectrum of leader to liaison, it’s an unnecessary dichotomy I used to make a point in that 316 course. Think about it like this — if the building is on fire and time is of the essence, you want a leader to call the shots to lead us to safety, as there isn’t time to consider the collective voice, and that collective voice is likely all over the place anyways. Time to step up and lead. I’ve been waiting for leaders to step up during this COVID crisis and lead, but even the authoritarian fascists, who should thrive in such a moment by their very nature, are totally floundering.

However, and this is what I was aluding to above that our culture gets wrong, what happens to the leader in non-crisis situations?

The Nez Perce have a motto I enjoy, “The Chief represents the voice of the tribe. If they do not, then they are simply no longer the Chief.”

I often see folks foolishly exert their authority and pull rank, or brag in non crisis situations. As I demonstrated above, this type of behavior (I used bragging above) threatens others in the tribe which immediately causes the performance of the culture to erode (See The Culture Code in top shelf reads). It’s very simple — you don’t think as cleverly or creatively when you are scared, frustrated, stressed, or powerless. It’s literally how you’re amygdala is supposed to function in your brain by transitioning processing from the cerebral cortex to the fight or flight portions of the brain.

What I see often happening in our research group meetings is that folks don’t put in enough thought beforehand to define goals, roles, and potential solutions. In this case, a mini-crisis occurs in that we may waste a bunch of people’s time because we don’t know what we’re doing and are running out of time to do something. That’s when I have to step in and do some leading to define these goals, roles, and outcomes. Some people never get out of this mode and assume that I just start calling shots in every meeting. Ideally though, the team has thought these things through and I don’t have to lead, because they should have done the work in advance (that’s what leading is by definition), and crises are avoided.

Leading in a meeting, the need to improvise decisions, is a last resort when faced with a crisis. The rest of the time, you should be considering multiple perspectives and suggestions from a group, spotting gaps, and optimizing versus constraints. Representing the voice of the tribe as a Liaison.

As Gene Voiland so correctly put it, “I used to celebrate the heroes in an organization until I realized I should be celebrating the people who never needed a hero to begin with.”