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:

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.