Successful Leaders Create Teams with ‘Minds of Their Own’

People more than ever are thinking on their own. As I have traveled the world this year working with leaders—across the United States, in Paris, Turkey, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, and Asia—I’ve seen this playing out in business too. I am seeing, more than before, a deep desire from people to have their point of view heard, and to influence the direction of the teams they are a part of.

I was doing leadership development in Istanbul and a fellow named Sertac came up to me at a break and asked “Are you Jewish?” Being in Turkey, a little uncomfortably, I said, “Yes. Why?” He said, “My wife is Jewish. And I am Muslim.” He proceeded to invite me, and then take me, to a Jewish temple for Friday night services. This temple had, in fact, been bombed in the past by terrorists. Praying next to this man, in that temple, was moving and is a memory I cherish.

Sertac has a mind of his own: he is creating the life he wants, unrestricted by any religious law or philosophy. And people all around the world are similarly forging forward to create the lives they want, in new economies, in new politics, with new technology.

People like Sertac don’t just leave their independent minds at home when they come to work.They come to work expecting to create the future they want, together with their leaders. We will see the winning leaders as the ones who recognize and leverage this.

This is not an easy task. Put simply, you can’t have everyone at work thinking their own thing and doing their own thing. That would be chaos. And as much as some companies would like to leverage robots to follow pre-prescribed protocols, that won’t work in positions requiring judgment.

What you need is a leader who takes a group of individuals, each with the desire for independence, and creates a synchronized team mind. I don’t mean a cult or group think mentality. I mean a team where individuals are empowered to have their own mind in making judgments, choices and taking actions. They feel empowered to solve the unpredicted problems that emerge at work, quickly and spontaneously without the need to call a meeting with the leader. They can approach their teammates and resolve conflicts, using their adult judgment, and agree on a workable business solution.

These are the teams that will excel. These are the teams who will retain the best people. Because they are leveraging the desire to think and act independently, while at the same time achieving the team’s goals.

That is the essence of leadership’s job —to leverage people’s independent thinking, in the context of the team mission. If you want to achieve this use any of these tried and true team building ideas:

* Create the context for “having a mind of your own.” Work with your team to create a common context of the work. Talk about and cultivate together a common premise about why each individual’s work matters to the whole. Explore and discuss how each person on the team is interconnected to the results of the other. Help individuals see how they fit in the whole. This team building technique helps them act independently with confidence while having the greater context in mind.

* Overcome cynicism through involvement. Alongside this desire for independent thinking, there is extensive cynicism in organizations today. Years of public exposure of the failings of executives to do what is right (VW is the latest case), leaves workers thinking that it doesn’t even pay to do what they think is the right thing. While it is more common to think that frontline workers feel like they have no influence, I’ve heard C-level executives feel as powerless due to perceived pressure of the stockholders and boards.

How do you empower people to think and act on their own in such a cynical, disempowered environment? A CEO of a technology company called us for some executive coaching to help change such a culture. We helped her leverage employees’ minds for the greater goal. First we did some team building with her and her executive team to craft an aspirational ambition for this new culture. We then asked all the managers in focus groups, “What is the reality? What do the execs really need to do to achieve their ambition?” Lo and behold, the managers told them. Now they have a plan with increased buy-in to get there. The independent minds are driving the organization forward.

* Hold everyone accountable for “having a mind of their own.” Members of winning teams have an internal compass for what to do as they encounter unforeseen opportunities and challenges. Part of the reason this doesn’t occur in all teams is because people are not held accountable. When team members escalate issues and the leader handles the issue, they learn that leader is the only mind on the team. An example of this is with a scientific research company we worked with. In their leadership meetings, they would discuss eight different topics and nothing would get decided. Everyone had a point of view, that was for sure. The team would leave meetings unclear of what to do. They finally figured out that they needed to each have a mind of their own and stop the meeting and say, “Hey. What did we decide? Who is going to take accountability? Who is going to do the task? Who do we need to consult? Who needs to be informed?” This unlocked the team’s power and got them moving forward quicker and more decisively. The leader had to expect the team to have a mind of its own, and once he did, they did. Now that is team building!

Success will come to leaders who move beyond themselves and tap into their peoples’ innate intelligence and skills. When they empower their teams in the context of the mission and hold each of them accountable to be the empowered, their organizations will flourish.

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