I’ve noticed something when I’m working with leadership teams who are building and implementing plans for the future: Little is more vexing to the team leader (or members of the team for that matter) than the squabbling and political in-fighting that often plagues run-of-the-mill teams.  Here we are, trying to do the hard work of getting perspective on the facts, making tough choices about resource allocation, and focusing our efforts – and Jon is spending energy sniping at Amy.  It’s enough to make team leaders pull their hair out.

And it’s then that the team leader assumes a role.  (Thanks to my colleague, Paul Krause, for sparking this insight for me.) See if you recognize yourself in one of these roles:

  • Judge: The judge is presented evidence (sometimes) and argument (always) and is left in the unenviable position of rendering judgement.  Granted, he hasn’t seen many of the actual incidents in question.  But the various parties expect a decision – and a judge dutifully gives one, even if doing so is going to cost him big-time.  Leaders asked to play Judge usually feel like they can’t win. And unless they have the wisdom of Solomon, they don’t particularly enjoy the process.
  • Referee: Referees at least get to watch the game.  They’re close to the events (often with the best seat in the house).  They’re trying to keep the game fair and safe and hopefully entertaining(!).  But implicit in their role is that they are moderating between two competitors, one of whom will win and one of whom will lose.  It’s a better position than a judge, but if the referee really needs both parties to win to achieve her plans, the best she can hope for is a draw so that both parties keep playing.
  • Coach: Coaches watch the game too.  Just as importantly, they’re part of the practice sessions.  They know the skills and personalities of the players.  They know the tensions on the team, but they’re cheering on each player and willing to give specific corrective feedback – so that the whole team has the best chance of winning.

It’s true that playing the role of coach requires more time (you can’t just show up for games or wait in your courtroom for litigants to appear). It’s also true that getting that involved can be very difficult when your leadership team is dispersed around the country or the globe. No one said this job would be easy.

The alternative? Grab a whistle or a gavel and be ready for a long day at the office.