How to Build a Great Team Like the Avengers

June 11, 2012 13 Comments

I saw the Avengers for the third time last night.  It gets awesomer every time (be sure to stay until the VERY END of the end credits – there’s a nice little treat there but I won’t spoil it).  Anyway, as I watched the Avengers in action, I couldn’t help but think about how you can build and lead a team of incredibly high-performing individuals.  Yes, this is another post about superheroes (click here for a fuller rundown of superhero leadership posts – they’re a lot of fun to read).

Hiring high performers can be problematic (as I’ve discussed in this post).  I’ve written about how you can lead high performing teams before and how you have to get out of their way.  All that said, I think the Avengers have added some interesting new thoughts to how you can build and lead that team.

The team members are mighty, incredible, and invincible.  They can handle themselves solo pretty well.  They all have huge personalities (which can destroy your team if you let them get out of control).  Nick Fury understands all of these dynamics of his team and he manages them masterfully.  And every member of the team eventually figures out how to be an outstanding team member (even Tony Stark – hmmm… maybe he read this post…).

How does he do such a wonderful job of getting the Avengers to gel and succeed?  He uses a few simple principles.

Let them be individuals

Nick Fury understands the strengths and weaknesses of his team members.  He celebrates those skills, quirks, and capabilities.  Instead of asking everyone to do things his way, he provides broad guidance on what needs done (in some cases letting the team members decide what needs done and giving them the freedom to operate).  He doesn’t ask anyone (other than Captain America) to put on a uniform and be a good soldier (and Cap does that because it’s who he truly is).

If you have a team of high performers (or if you’re currently building one), ask yourself if you’re letting them run things and operate the way they’re most comfortable doing it or the way you’re most comfortable doing it.  If it’s the latter, give up some control.  Let your people be themselves.  They’ll give you a lot more than if you try to get them to conform to some arbitrary standards because you’re not comfortable with the chaos and unpredictability.

Unite your team around a goal

It wasn’t enough for Nick Fury to say “Loki and the Chitauri are bad.  Go beat them.”  Nope.  The members of the Avengers knew that doing good was a good idea but their hearts weren’t in it.  Each of them had their own agenda.  Only when Agent Coulson was killed (I’ve got fifty bucks that says they revive him in the next movie) does the team unite around kicking Loki’s ass.  Why?  Because things got personal.  The goal of defeating Loki hit home for the team.  They understood, at a personal level what would happen if they didn’t.

Have you set out goals for your team?  Do they truly care about them on a personal level?  Have you rallied not their minds but their hearts around that measure of success?  If not, get cracking.

Trust in their judgment and abilities

All of Nick Fury’s stars had amazing powers and had been through their share of scrapes before.  He deliberately brought together a volatile group of individuals with incredible abilities and unleashed them on a colossal problem.  He didn’t give them directions or plans.  He didn’t give them rules of engagement.  He simply knew what they were capable of, what their intentions were, and the strength of character and values underlying their powers.  Launching a force like that required the ultimate in trust in their abilities and intentions.

Do you trust your people?  Do they trust you (take this quick little assessment to see how trusted of a leader you are)?  Are you confident in your team members’ abilities?  If not, understand the source of your discomfort and get it resolved fast if you want to get the best out of them.

Expect conflict

There was no way everyone on the team would see eye to eye with each other or Fury himself (especially since Fury only has one eye).  Everyone had a different view of the problem, the solution, and how to work together.  It wasn’t all peaches and cream when the team discussed how to work together.  Remember the scene where Dr. Banner picks up the scepter and everyone is arguing?  Yeah.  THAT is going to happen on your team.  Expecting everyone to get along and sing kumbaya is a pipe dream.

Do you welcome conflict on your team or do you try to eliminate it?  Are team members free to air their opinions or do you try to manage the conversation?  Do you not only tolerate but encourage dissent or do you want everyone to fall in line?  Do the latter and your high performers will seek other opportunities.

Let them hash out their own differences

When there is conflict, you can’t play mediator.  Sometimes you need to let the inevitable slug-fest happen.  How awesome was it when Iron Man and Thor were beating the hell out of each other and then Captain America joined the fray?  That was one of the battles for all time.  Once the arguing/pummeling was over, though, the three of them saw they all had a common enemy and their powers were best exercised elsewhere.

Do you coddle your team and negotiate the peace?  Are you comfortable with your team members sometimes getting into shouting matches or do you try to defuse things quickly?  If you mediate too much, all you’re doing is pushing that conflict below the surface where it’ll turn into other dysfunctional passive-aggressive behaviors.  Let them duke it out every once in a while.  It will clear the air and help them achieve a shared understanding of direction.

Cover their backs

Perhaps Nick Fury’s greatest line in the movie is when higher headquarters (the World Security Council) makes a decision to nuke New York to defeat Loki and his army.  Fury says “I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-assed decision, I’ve elected to ignore it. ”  He was backing the Avengers and their ability to win the day.  He stood up for his team and protected them from undue interference.

Do you stand up for and protect your team?  I refer to that approach as being a human crapshield (you can read about the technique in this post).  If your team knows you’ve got their back and are giving them the freedom to operate, they’ll run through brick walls for you (and in the Hulk’s case, he’ll do that literally).

Avengers assemble!

In the end, leading a high-performing team full of superheroes is an incredibly rewarding, challenging, and frustrating role to play.  They’ll amaze you with their abilities.  They’ll test your patience and intestinal fortitude.  They’ll sometimes put your entire career at risk.  That said, if you lead them well, they just might save the world.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

– If you want to be a better leader and build trust with your team, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership

13 Responses to “How to Build a Great Team Like the Avengers”

  1. Nathan says:

    Really enjoyed the analogy you used. Assembling a good team is vital when a start up grows to the point where the founder is lacking the skills and or time to get everything done. You need to assemble a team which compliments your ethos and is passionate about your business. Thanks for sharing this

  2. Brad says:

    Holy super stretch, Batman! It’s only a fantasy movie — certainly not a model for team building, unless you want to peak behind the screen to look at real personalities, compensation demands, and management challenges.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Wait… Nick Fury isn’t *real*? Oh crap.

      In all seriousness Brad, take a step back and look at the learning points. The movie is merely a vehicle to open a conversation. I’d submit that the points being made are relevant for any high performing team. As far as comp, management challenges, and “real” personalities, I invite you to check out the other 350+ posts on the site – I’m sure we’ve covered many of those topics previously. Looking forward to your thoughts on those posts.

  3. Great article. Well written. I love superhero’s (hence my workshop, “Heroes and the Boogie Man). Your analogy of the recent “Avengers” movie was right on where teams and leaders are concerned. I am glad I came across your site. I will continue to read your awesome articles.

    Carlos Michael
    Tulsa, Oklahoma

  4. Jim Flock says:

    I agree that Nick Fury displays many outstanding leadership qualities. However, I’d like to point out that he is also displayed some traits that were not so great particularily for impressible youngsters and some adults.

    You mentioned that he trusted his team’s abilities. And yet, he did not trust them enough to know the truth and was willing to manipulate them with ‘little white lies’. We have too many situations where leaders think that the need to know means that information stays with them and their superiors. At least Nick Fury is confident enough to fess up when confronted.

    I would certainly hope that I had the skills to be a Nick Fury type of leader or the ‘super powers’ to be an Avenger!

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      All of us are flawed. You raise fair points about his failings. That said, I’m glad you also took away the lessons on all the great stuff he did. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading.

  5. Loved this article. A memorable, un-boring way to drive a point home. Shared it with my social network. Thanks!

  6. While I enjoyed the metaphor and the learning points, I think it is based on a false premise…that everyone is a superhero. I think a better idea is to apply the same concepts to when the team is just ordinary folks. How do you make them think and act like a super team, not just super heroes? Having worked in leadership development, cultural change and performance improvement for more than 15 years, I think that some of the ideas here are more relevant (and expressed somewhat differently) than others:

    • “Unite your team around a goal” – Though expressed somewhat negatively in the post, having a “goal” is at heart the core of team performance. We would describe it as– collectively define a compelling “purpose” (which is much more than a goal) that achieves a greater social good. Teams unite easily when they are profoundly aligned around achieving something important
    • Trust their judgments and abilities – The post presents this in a passive way in the sense of trusting what is already there, which isn’t wrong, but is incomplete and doesn’t work if everyone starts out as ordinary folk. Instead, define and then follow what we call a “path to mastery” that develops the capabilities of the team to achieve the purpose. Be proactive in creating the foundation for trust in capabilities.

    If you do these two things well, there is really little need for the other concepts. When everyone is aligned on purpose and good at their jobs, motivation is intense and “management” is unnecessary because the team is self-managing. So, focus on purpose and mastery and anyone can create a great team.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      I think you make some fair points for managing “ordinary” teams. The post is not based on a false premise – it’s targeted at those rare situations where EVERYONE on your team is indeed a superstar (I’ve led a couple of such teams over the years and they were stars before they came to work for me). Just wanted to clarify the intent of the original post. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

      • Thanks for your follow-up. You are very fortunate to have led a team of super-stars, which as you say, is rare. I have worked in many highly respected organizations for more than 30 years and most of the time, I had to develop my team into super-stars. Some of the time, the “superstars” actually diminished the team.

        But even super-stars need structure, it just needs to be the right kind of structure to magnify their talents without diminishing the group. I think the structure always begins with a greater sense of purpose. Once everyone is aligned, and you know they are good, it is easy to give autonomy.

  7. Ashok says:

    Amazingly written article and the correlation to Avengers movie is speck on. The principles outlined are exactly what’s required to lead such teams, I have had my experience on such teams & the principles mentioned above makes the team perform to their highest standards.

  8. Wow this is a really great piece of trust, i never thought you can learn this much from a movie, you brought this topic with a very entertaining way and personally i’m very thankful to you because you remind me you can even find good examples everywhere. Thank you so much Mike

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