Leadership is able to influence the team to move forward. Leadership provides the team with an affirmation of their individual and collective personhood that mobilizes them to achieve great things. Genuine leaders recognize that their job is to serve the team. In so doing, the team responds by rallying around the leader, thereby enlivening the old acrostic about teams (Together Everyone Accomplishes More).
As powerful as those leadership and group dynamics are, is it possible for the leader to have a team that is impossible to lead? Can every team be led? Will the leader succeed in spite of the team? Gary Kelly (president and CEO of Southwest Airlines) articulates a painful leadership lesson concerning the nature of the hand you are dealt in your team (“How Did I Get Here?: Gary Kelly” Bloomberg Businessweek, 4/6/15–4/12/15, p. 68):
“No person can overcome a lousy team.”
Although Kelly identifies an agonizing truth, I think that we have to be careful about how we use it. Just because something is true does not give us the right to misapply it as an excuse. I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The leader has two choices:
A Leader Can Rebuild A Lousy Team. Sometimes the leader is able to work intensely with the team in a way that perhaps no one else has. This demands building relationships that are characterized by authenticity, vulnerability, openness, trust, and caring. When a leader invests this way, a lousy team can be rebuilt. Obviously, many diverse factors will come into play, but the point is, just because the leader has a lousy team, it does not automatically follow that the team and the leader shall fail. Every genuine leader should first ask the question can this team be rebuilt? If the answer is yes, then terrific things can and will happen.
A Leader Can Leave A Lousy Team. In spite of all the above effort at rebuilding a lousy team, a leader might face a set of circumstances such that the team is virtually designed to fail. The leader should not jump to this conclusion too quickly. However, after carefully analyzing all factors related to the team dynamics and the business conditions, it is possible that the leader may arrive at this sad conclusion. This is not a conclusion that should be immediately cast in concrete, but rather should be arrived at with careful counsel from various sources. Leaders all have blind spots and you don’t want your blind spot to rob you of what could be a unique opportunity. Assuming all this is done, in some cases the leader must make the painful yet realistic decision to leave a lousy team. The leader does that team no favors by staying. In fact, in many ways the leader’s departure may motivate the remaining team members to step up their game. And if that happens, then perhaps both the leader and the team have won.