How to Be Both Leader and Team Member

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Big Leadership Question #1:

Can you be both the leader of, and an equal member of, a work team?

Big Leadership Question #2:


For those of you who are scratching your heads and saying, “What the hell is he talking about?” let me explain.

Motivational Speaker Bill StaintonFor 15 years I was the executive producer of a sketch comedy TV show called Almost Live! But for those same 15 years, I was also one of the writers, as well as one of the performers, for the show. Now, as a writer and performer, I was on an equal level with the others on the team (equal in terms of rank, not ability; most of the others were better writers and performers than I, which is why I hired them). But as executive producer, I was the boss. And for the first few years, I didn’t know how to be both.

It’s a situation I see quite often with new leaders (and occasionally with not-so-new leaders)—particularly leaders who have been promoted from within the team. You know how it works: one day you’re just “one of the guys,” and the next, you’re the one who’s got to tell them that they can’t leave early so they can beat the traffic. And it’s especially tough when, as in my case, you have to play both roles. One day, you’re just one of the performers, acting in somebody else’s sketch, taking direction from them; the next day, you’re the one telling that person that she can’t leave early so she can beat the traffic.

It’s a tough balancing act for a leader, and for several years I didn’t do it well.

But eventually I figured it out.

They key, I found, is to be crystal clear about which role you’re playing at any given time. Ambiguity is the enemy, and it will kill your chances of being an effective leader.

If I, as executive producer Bill, was having an issue with one of my team members—Jennifer, for example (and I use the name Jennifer because we never had a team member named Jennifer; how we managed to avoid that, I’ll never know)—I would call Jennifer into my office. Now, here’s the important part. When Jennifer would skip merrily into my office, the very first thing I would do would be to say, “I’m wearing my producer hat now.” The skipping would stop, and Jennifer would say, “Oh. Okay.” And we would have our conversation. (By the way, these weren’t always “bad news” conversations. I would do this any time I needed to be The Boss.)

The point is, there was no ambiguity. No misunderstanding. No possibility of Jennifer thinking, “Oh, he’s just being one of the guys—I don’t have to take this too seriously.”

A few years ago when I was keynoting a conference for a major financial group, I heard a presentation by business expert Amilya Anonetti. Speaking about this same leader/team member phenomenon, Amilya cited the examples of some leaders who literally put on a particular cap, or a particular jacket, when they were in “Boss” mode. She then said what it took me years to figure out for myself:

It is possible to be both the leader of, and a member of, a team. It is possible to play both roles. Just be sure your team members know which role you’re playing.

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About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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