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.
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).
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.
– 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