It’s not a challenge; it’s an opportunity!

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The study of leadership theory can seem daunting to the new leader. The vast amount of material can make it difficult for the student of leadership to determine where to start. One suggestion is to start with the question of why we study leadership theory by considering in what ways leadership can be practically applied, transform people and organizations, or solve problems[1]. Answering one or more of these questions will narrow the focus of the leadership study and perhaps guide the student to consider a relatable application to begin an understanding of leadership.

An example of how to begin can be found in the common occurrence of work colleagues who both happen to be leaders of teams passing in the hallway. As they approach, one colleague shares a standard greeting common in most business halls “how are you doing today?” The other colleague responds enthusiastically, “great, and I have nothing but opportunities everywhere!” Was the response sarcasm or genuine enthusiasm? The response reflects a mentality that all leaders should have, but few do. They respond that they have problems and challenges everywhere and don’t even consider them opportunities. Why are they opportunities and not simply problems? Words make a difference and reflect our intentions of thinking and behaving. A leader’s purpose is to influence followers and teams to achieve goals and add value, especially when facing a tough challenge or problem. Leaders can successfully and intentionally guide a team through a formidable “opportunity” when leveraging the following essential elements of team leadership.

Communicate your faith in their abilities.

Starting a project to solve a complicated problem with praise and confidence may pressure the team, but it will also demonstrate that you believe in them as their leader. This expression of faith must be sincere for it to be effective. As the leader, you must believe in your team. The problem may be so hard that they doubt their ability to solve it. They may try to manage your expectations by sharing this concern. Taking on the unknown can create worry, fear, anxiety, and doubt in most people. The rare individual jumps in with high confidence at the opportunity to solve what initially appears to be unsolvable. The leader sets the tone for the team and should always project confidence and faith in tier abilities.

Show you trust their judgment.

A leader who expects to be trusted must first show trust to their team members. Solving a wicked problem with anxious key stakeholders makes this aspect of leadership even more challenging. You picked the team and asked them to find a solution to a problem they’ve never considered or seen before. The leader’s demonstrated trust can differentiate between a successful effort and a prolonged struggle. Knowing their leader has empowered them and manages external forces such as customers and organizational leadership will free them to focus on solving the problem.

Provide a safe environment for sharing ideas.

The word “safe” means that team members feel free to offer ideas that the team and the leader will receive positively and acceptably. Not every idea will be the one that gets you to a solution. The team needs options to consider to get there; the more options, the better. Narrowing down options is also part of the process. The team needs to know that their contributions make a difference and that the path to solving the problem may have many different routes.

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Allow them to fail and encourage them to continue.

One of the most challenging aspects of leading through complex problems is to watch the team fail. Especially when you’ve backed their decision, provided them scarce resources, and advocated for them with internal and external stakeholders. No one wants to fail, especially the team who clearly understands the urgency and visibility of their efforts. The more complex the problem, the more likely the path to overcoming it will have some detours. Few leaders will quote Elon Musk to their team that “failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”[2] Team leaders must find a middle ground that allows for failure while minimizing its occurrence and impact. The team leader must illustrate the positive takeaways from the failure and press on with this valuable experience of what didn’t work.

Share the story with your customers.

Being transparent with customers throughout the problem-solving process is critical to maintaining their trust in your organization and you as the leader. Communicating proactively and sharing the story of your team’s expertise and commitment can get you through even the most challenging problems. Like your team, your customer needs to believe that the people working on the problem are the right and best people. Customer satisfaction will suffer if they think you are not committed to solving their problem or if there is doubt about the skills and experience of your team.

Celebrate the win and recognize the team.

It’s not unusual for the team to move on to the next opportunity on the list and fail to recognize the success and effort of the win. This act of recognition can be simple yet meaningful to the team, especially when they give their best effort and are thrilled they found a solution. Team lunches or small tokens of appreciation like company log products can go a long way to ensuring the team has a positive reference for the next opportunity. Individual recognition should be a leader’s focus with a personalized and meaningful sign that you and the company appreciate them. Some organizations have online tools that produce certificates of appreciation, and others may have the option to give gift cards or monetary awards. The key is to ensure you don’t overlook or miss this opportunity.

A Team Leadership Model to help.

The leadership of teams differs from general leadership because of the complexities and dynamics of leading a team. Though a leader may employ methods and behaviors found in classic or emerging leadership theories, the team leader is more focused on process and providing the structure needed to succeed. The Hill Model for Team Leadership is a tool designed to assist leaders in understanding the complex nature of teams and aid decision-making for leaders and teams.[3] The model provides a framework for the team problem-solving practical approaches discussed throughout this article. The leader of teams has many roles that include but are not limited to the facilitator, coach, communicator, blocker, and cheerleader. According to the model, the team leader is encouraged first to develop a mental model of the expected decisions, internal and external focused actions, and finally, the definition of team success.

The environment associated with the global pandemic has provided many opportunities for effective and skilled leadership. The study of leadership theory and an understanding of its practical application can be used to solve problems. Discovering and applying the team leadership model is one method the student of leadership can begin their exploration of leadership theory.

[1] Doublestein, B. (2022). Doctoral Writing & Minor One Discussion [PowerPoint slides]. School of Business and Leadership, Regent University.

[2] Reingold, J. (2005), Hondas in Space. www.fastcompany.com/52065/hondas-space.

[3] Kogler Hill, S.E. (2021). Team leadership. In P. G. Northouse (Ed.), Leadership: Theory and practice (9th ed.). Sage publications.