11 Rules for Leading Teams

Lessons I’ve learned to get the most from a team while doing the least amount of damage in the process.

I have had the pleasure of serving under some great leaders and a few not so great leaders. (Yes, even serving under a bad leader can be a pleasure if you learn from it and apply what you’ve learned to how you lead.)

Looking back over the many leaders I have served under, I have compiled a list of eleven things that I have learned and that I try to apply to the people I lead. (I say try because I know I have failed many more times than I have succeeded.)

1) Stay calm.

As a leader (You could also insert Husband or Father here.) you live in a fishbowl. Everything you do (and feel) is seen and magnified. That means that when you’re at a six people will perceive you at an eight, which will usually push them to a ten or worse, they’ll overload and burnout. (The truth is no matter where you are your team will probably think you’re at an eleven.)

Bonus Thought: You may feel like you do a good job at hiding your emotions, but you’re human so you probably don’t do as good of a job as you think. Because of this, it’s important to have people around you that will speak honestly and directly to you and help reel you in.

2) Be present

Both physically and emotionally. An absent leader may think they are communicating trust in their team but what they are really communicating is “what you are doing is not that important to me, and since it’s not important to me, it’s not important to the organization.”

Bonus Thought: If the leader is not present how can they see the great things their team is accomplishing and give sincere and generous praise? (see point 10)

3) Don’t try to be Omnipresent

You can’t be everywhere and in everything. You’re not God. (though I have met a few leaders who think they might not be God but they’re the next best thing, but that is a whole different post.) Trying to be involved in every decision is called micro-managing. The only thing micro-managers create is exhaustion. They exhaust themselves and their team.

4) Engage

Don’t just ask for reports, engage in a conversation. Don’t just ask what decisions where made or what was done, ask why. Engage in the thought process. Learn what is making your team tick. This will not only give you information, it will give you understanding of the different personalities and talents of your team and will add value to them. (Unless of course you do nothing but tell them the way they should have done it or how YOU would have done it.) See #8 for more on this.

Bonus Thought: As a leader, you probably have a million plates spinning all at once. So how to you decide what to give your attention to or engage with at any given time? You give it to what is in front of you. There is nothing more frustrating to a team or team member then when the leader who is with them physically isn’t there emotionally or mentally.

5) Give freedom

I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that when a Pyramid was finished in Egypt, the builders didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment or pride in their work. Why? Because they weren’t builders, they were slaves working under task masters.

Hopefully you’re not a task master and you don’t see your team as slaves. Give you’re team ownership of what they are doing. You can and should set parameters, but let them run in the boundaries you set. Let them work freely in their passions and with the natural gifts they have.

6) Trust

If you can’t trust a team member to make good decisions or accomplish the job they are given, then maybe they shouldn’t be on your team at all. See #3 (Of course, the problem could be that they have not been given the tools or training they need to accomplish what they have been given to do. This isn’t their fault, it’s their leaders.)

7) Cast vision (constantly)

Teams don’t just need to know what needs to get done. They need to know why they are doing it. However it’s not enough to communicate the “big picture” of the organization, teams also need to understand the importance of what they are doing and how without it, the “big picture” can’t be accomplished. (One of the quickest way to lose a valuable team member is to make them feel that what they are doing is not important or they are just “spinning their wheels” with busy work.)

8) Correct and train

Mistakes will always happen. But they will keep happening if they are not corrected. No one wants to make a mistake, and a person can’t correct a mistake if they don’t know they are making one or why they are making it.

The only way to keep a team member from repeating a mistake is to train them on how to do it right.

9) Manage pace

There will be times that you have to push your team. Deadlines are a real thing. But, If the leader has done their job, they have built a team of incredible people who not only believe in what they are doing, they believe in you and your goals.

Passionate people push. They sacrifice. They work hard. They love what they do. A leaders job is to know where their team is, what they are doing and when they are doing too much. A great leader will help motivate their team to get things done the best way they know how but should also strive to keep them healthy.

Not everything has to get done now or tomorrow. A quick way to burn out a team and the families of a team is to allow them to push themselves beyond what is realistically possible.

Bonus Thought: Nothing worth doing is worth doing fast. Anything great takes time. A leader that loses sight on the pressure their team is under is not leading well.

10) Be sincere and generous with praise

Everyone needs affirmation. Everyone needs to know that what they are committing their time and lives to is noticed and appreciated. Always look for ways to praise your team or team members. But not just privately, publicly.

But it needs to be sincere.

Praise for the sake of praise or as a motivational tool is not really praise, it’s flattery. It’s meaningless or worse, it can come across as belittling. In order to be sincere in your praise you need to have a real understanding of what is being accomplished. And you can’t do that if you’re not present (see #2) or engaged with your team. (see #4)

11) Make failure safe

A team that is afraid to fail will be afraid to innovate. Sometimes doing the same thing that has always been done is a good thing, but when it stops working you need people that are willing to take risks and change. People won’t be willing to try new things if they are afraid of the consequences of failure. Remember the response of Thomas Edison when he was asked about his many failures while inventing the Light Bulb: “I have not failed, I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Final Bonus Thought: If you are leading well then the people you are leading are not only doing a great job, but are becoming better leaders themselves. This means that more then likely they will grow beyond what they are doing for you.

This is a GREAT thing.

This is why leaders should not see themselves as owners or bosses of a team, but as stewards. Stewardship is being temporarily responsible for something that is not yours. A good steward will strive to take what they are responsible for, and make it better.

(As a pastor I have the privilege of working with great teams of volunteers. The list above can absolutely be applied to leading unpaid volunteers, but if you work with volunteers on a regular basis you should also read: “4 Things Every Volunteer Needs to Keep Their Head From Exploding.”)