There’s No ‘I’ in Lead

By Brian Nixon

Effective leadership takes more than one individual’s vision and abilities—it requires a group of active followers.

The role of a leader is traditionally thought of as a solitary position, exemplified by the cliché that “it’s lonely at the top.” But such a view is both long in the tooth and incorrect. Leadership is a team sport.

This collaborative approach—with a team guided, coached and motivated by a leader—is espoused by John Kanengieter, a senior fellow with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania’s. He is also part of the new ABA-Wharton CEO Leadership Lab, a product of the ABA and Wharton partnership that premiered in May in Philadelphia.

The Leadership Lab is designed to provide bank presidents and CEOs with the knowledge and expertise needed to address the realities of leadership in today’s dynamic banking and business environment. The program’s faculty members have in-depth experience working directly with leading companies and policy makers around the world. Kanengieter, for example, has worked with both NASA and International Space Station crews on building and enhancing leadership in team-based environments.

Lessons for everyone

“A lot of professionals don’t associate leadership with their jobs,” Kanengieter says. “What I would say is leadership is happening all the time regardless of what profession you’re in—whether you’re a Space Shuttle commander or a team leader in the branch of a bank, let alone the president. Leadership is always happening.”

Just as important, he adds, is that leadership “doesn’t just reside in a person. Leadership is also an action.”

Kanengieter suggests viewing leadership as a dynamic system that encompasses a group of people working to achieve a particular goal. Any team member within that system can provide elements of leadership. “Even the most junior members of a team can be leaders,” he says.

This latter point—that anyone can meaningfully contribute to a team’s leadership—speaks to what Kanengieter calls “followership.” While most teams still need and rely on someone in charge—where the buck stops—the contributions of other team members are important in the achievement of a goal.

“[There are] thousands and thousands of books on leadership, but very few on the concept of followership,” says Kanengieter.

He breaks leadership and teams into various components that include the designated leader and active followers, team members who support and help make the designated leader powerful. “The active follower questions and challenges the designated leader, but in a supportive way,” Kanengieter says. “They see something missing and bring it forward.”

It’s up to the designated leader—say, the bank CEO or senior officers—to use their leadership skills to create a vision and bring it to their teams. Those personal leadership strengths and skills—and leadership style—are honed through both experience, education and background. These are “really the things that differentiate you,” Kanengieter says.

He adds that the best leaders rely on their personal strengths. “Too many people focus on their weaknesses,” he says. “What I would suggest is actually focusing on what you are good at because research tells us you can only move the needle a little bit on those things that you’re not good at, but you can really leverage your strengths to make a lot of changes.”

It’s also important to note that a designated leader’s skills and styles can vary depending on circumstances. “That’s what we call situational leadership,” Kanengieter says. “Being a leader in a crisis situation is going to look different than my leadership when I’m running a meeting and everything is going great. I’m going to adjust my style and my role.”

Leadership roles and styles

In any new team environment, “the first thing is to figure out your role,” he says. “Everyone’s got a boss as well as the potential of being a boss. Be really clear [about]your role. Am I a designated leader or an active follower? What are the skills I need for this leadership role to reach our goal?”

Leaders will have different styles. “I tend to lead as motivator—enthusiastic—and ‘team’ is a big value of mine,” Kanengieter says. “That’s going to be different from someone else.” Understanding the elements of a high-performance team can also help leaders continue to build their skills. “The best teams are those that are critically thinking both individually and collectively,” he says. “Each individual is taking part in a way that gets us toward our stated goal.”

That’s where the real payoff enters the picture. “There’s effective leadership and effective leaders, but really the goal—the real wealth—is in having a high-performance team.”

A simple test for determining whether a team is performing at a high level goes like this:

1. Did we accomplish the task or goal?
2. Did we learn something?
3. If you had the opportunity to do it again with the same people, would you?

Not surprisingly, Kanengieter says, the first two questions often are simple to answer. “The last question is always a key question because it’s really about the relationships,” he says. “You’ll see very quickly the micro-expression of somebody that kind of furrows their brow. Or, there are other expressions where people just light up, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this was the best.’”

The latter also illustrates how a successful, high-performing team focuses beyond the achievement of a goal. “The highest-performing teams look at how they won,” says Kanengieter.

Most team relationships involve supervising six to eight people, he notes. So leadership involves personal relationships. “Leaders need to make sure employees recognize why elements of what they do are critical,” he says.

Take a bank’s front-line personnel, for example. “A teller is not just there to do a transaction,” Kanengieter says. “A leader would explain to a teller: ‘Your job is so important because you’re the face of the bank to the public. Your relationship skills are critical. Each transaction may be routine, but each relationship is a key component of the bank’s success.’”

Kanengieter’s view is that leadership is always about next steps. “Leadership isn’t about what you do,” he says. “It’s about what you do next. It’s always forward-thinking. It’s always about the intentional decision to take an action.”