They call it the race of truth. Each Tour de France rider races alone along a set course. The person with the fastest time wins.
That is how one day of each of the annual three week race is spent. Today, on the penultimate race day of this year’s three week race, Tadej Pagacar beat them all and earned the coveted Yellow Jersey of the overall race winner in a shocking finish not seen since 1989 when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds to win that year’s Tour de France.
When the interviewers reached him, he immediately credited his team for the win. Yes, the interviewer said, but today it was just you.
No, Pagacar insisted. It was the team. They helped him to scout out the route, to devise a strategy, and to motivate him. He included the coach (Team Director) and also the support staff (masseurs, food preparers, mechanics).
Basking in the immediate glory of a historic win, Pagacar recognized the importance of each player. After all, cycling is a team sport that is won by an individual. And that might be a great way to think about leadership, especially in uncertain times.
The leader is a member of the team
Successful team leaders see themselves as members of the team first and foremost. The hierarchy of yesteryear is not very useful in a high functioning team. And while the team leader has special responsibilities and bears a certain kind of burden, a wise leader recognizes that this is true for everyone on the team.
The leader’s role is special in that it encompasses that insight as a crucial aspect. A leader must see the bigger picture but also must customize and tailor approaches that maximize each individual’s contribution.
The team leader must also work to corral inputs from each member in shaping the overall strategy, tactics, and motivation that lead to success.
If you see yourself as presiding over the team, you might have some work to do in terms of optimizing. While people need and respect strong leadership, an overbearing or detached style will erode morale and shrink performance potential.
High performing teams are tightly aligned. They know what they are supposed to do and how to do it. A Tour de France team has a clear goal, lots of immediate feedback as the race unfolds, and a rich history of strategies and tactics to draw upon.
Your team might have some similarities. Perhaps some functions are relatively routine or predictable. But much of your work may be less well-defined, particularly in a context of uncertainty. As the leader, it’s crucial that you help bring definition and clarity.
They need to know the vision. They need to know what they are striving for in the big picture.
But, critically, they also need to know what to focus on right now. They need to know what strategies and tactics should be deployed and how they should measure results.
You don’t have to have all these answers, of course. Because much of that resides within your team. But it is your responsibility to bring that out of them and to the forefront of team discussions. That’s part of the team leader’s special responsibilities.
The magic of using your role to cultivate the best ideas from everyone in shaping a path forward is that it builds morale. People are motivated by having a sense of impact on team goals, a sense of some control over their own work, and a sense of progress in professional development. We all want to be challenged. We all want to contribute to success. We all want to get better at what we do.
That doesn’t mean that everyone gets to make all the decisions, or even that they get an equal “vote.” It means that they have a voice and that they feel heard. Even if someone doesn’t like a particular decision, they will be ok as long as the process you use to solicit input and make decisions is fair. They will understand that decisions are ultimately aligned with achieving a team goal.
Many riders at the Tour de France do lots of things during the race under “team orders,” such as doing extra work to support other riders in a number of ways. All that extra energy may sap energy they might need to achieve any individual glory in the race, but they dutifully carry out the chores in service of larger goals.
A good leader gets results by making three things clear to the team: who we are, why we exist, and how you can help us to succeed.
Every team needs an identity, whether it’s Bill Murray’s rag tag self-directed troop of Stripes fame or a world-class sports team. Defining who you are as a team and embracing and embodying that personality goes a long way. But you also need a reason to exist.
Every team needs a clear mission and a vision for how to best achieve it. Individuals work best in service of goals “larger than themselves.” The same is true for teams.
Finally, each member of the team needs to know exactly what they are expected to do to help achieve success.
If you can cultivate these three things and you can do it as a member of the team (as a servant leader), you will be well on your way to developing a high performance team with lots of motivation. And there is no faster path to results than that. Just ask Tadej Pogacar.