Leadership is a Team Sport
Part 2: The Leader
by Pete Behrens

© Agile Leadership Journey

When envisioning the leadership dynamics of the 2024 Super Bowl teams, it's easy to spotlight figures like head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, and notably the quarterbacks, who often become the face of the team. Names such as Kyle Shannahan, Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Brock Purdy (and Travis Kelce for other reasons) might dominate the conversation due to their visibility and critical roles. 

However, leadership extends far beyond these high-profile positions, permeating every layer of the team's structure. From the right tackle executing a pivotal block to the logistics coordinator flawlessly managing the equipment supply chain, leadership manifests in various forms, each vital to the team's success. 

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This phenomenon underscores a fundamental truth: leadership is not confined to titles or roles but is an act of contribution that can be demonstrated by anyone within the organization. 

While those in positions of authority undeniably wield significant influence, the essence of leadership is about making an impact, regardless of one's role. Each member of the team, in contributing their expertise and energy towards a common goal, exemplifies leadership in action, reinforcing the notion that leadership, at its core, is a collective endeavor, a team sport where every act of guidance, no matter how small, contributes to the overarching victory.

Consider a significant moment during the Super Bowl, where Travis Kelce was observed in a heated exchange with his head coach after a crucial play didn't pan out as planned. Although the specifics of their conversation were not audible, the interaction itself speaks volumes about the dynamics of leadership within the team. In that instance, leadership was not about titles or positions but about passion, commitment, and the courage to speak up for the team's best interest.

This scenario exemplifies the essence of leadership as a collective endeavor, where each team member, regardless of their role, embodies leadership qualities contributing to the team's overall direction and success.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to sports but is mirrored in the business world. Organizations, like teams, are complex human systems driven by social dynamics, where leadership permeates every level. The culture of an organization, while often steered by those at the top, is the sum of the signals, energy, and momentum generated by every individual within it. Success in business, as in sports, depends on harnessing this collective energy positively, navigating the ebbs and flows of momentum with strategic foresight and a unified leadership approach. The most effective teams and organizations recognize the power of collective leadership to drive toward common goals, illustrating that leadership, indeed, is a team sport where everyone plays a crucial role.

Leadership Mindset and Behavior

While orchestrating the strategic balance between offense and defense within their teams and organizations, individual leaders face their own nuanced challenge of embodying both postures personally. This internal equilibrium is a testament to the complexity of leadership, requiring a dynamic interplay of assertiveness and resilience, ambition and caution, all held within a single vision. The journey of a leader, therefore, is as much about managing oneself as it is about guiding others.

The strategic interplay of offense and defense in a team or organization mirrors the individual leader's use of assertive and accommodating power styles. Understanding the relationship between these styles and the offensive and defensive postures offers a deeper insight into effective leadership dynamics. This nuanced approach not only enhances a leader's adaptability but also enriches their ability to navigate complex situations with precision.

The Offensive-Oriented Leader

An assertive style in leadership aligns with the offensive strategies seen in sports and business teams. In the realm of leadership, much like in the strategy of a game, the concept of "offense" carries significant weight. An offensive-minded leader, akin to the assertive front of a team pushing the ball forward, is characterized by a proactive approach to leadership. This assertiveness, mirrored in both sports and business strategies, is about taking the initiative, setting clear and ambitious goals, and driving forward with unwavering confidence. It embodies the essence of making bold decisions, embracing calculated risks, and pushing the boundaries of what's possible to achieve organizational objectives. Through this lens, assertiveness equips leaders with the ability to seize opportunities, foster innovation, and guide their teams toward growth and success with a forward-thinking mindset and the courage to face challenges head-on. 

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However, the term "offense" also harbors a dual connotation, particularly when it intersects with interpersonal dynamics. While assertiveness is a cornerstone of effective leadership, fostering a positive and proactive environment, there's a fine line where it can be perceived negatively – when assertiveness crosses into aggressiveness, it risks being viewed as “offensive”. This polarity within leadership power styles underscores the intricate balance leaders must navigate. Being assertively offensive, in the positive sense, involves advancing with clarity, vision, and decisiveness. Yet, it requires a high level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to ensure that this assertiveness doesn't overstep, turning from a driving force for progress into a source of conflict or demotivation.

The Defensive-Oriented Leader

On the flip side, a defensive-minded leader, much like a key player in a sports team's defensive line, plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the team's gains and ensuring its stability. This leadership style is closely aligned with an accommodative power style, which emphasizes empathy, understanding, and flexibility. Accommodative leaders are adept at listening, building consensus, and often prioritize the collective needs and goals of the team or organization above their own ambitions. Their approach is characterized by a focus on risk management, conflict resolution, and the creation of a supportive environment that underpins the team's well-being and the organization's enduring success. This style naturally fosters a culture of harmony, collaboration, and long-term sustainability, essential for the resilient backbone of any successful entity.

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However an accommodative approach harbors its own set of challenges and potential pitfalls. An over-defensive oriented leader may inadvertently veer into the realm of appearing disengaged or aloof, particularly if their emphasis on consensus and accommodation is perceived as a lack of conviction or direction. This can sometimes give the impression of a leader who is overly passive or indecisive, one who may not take a stand when necessary or who shies away from making the tough calls. Moreover, an overemphasis on defensiveness can manifest as being too reactive rather than proactive, where the leader is constantly in a mode of responding to situations rather than anticipating and strategically planning for them. Such a stance, while rooted in the intention to protect and stabilize, can hinder innovation and agility, potentially causing the team or organization to miss out on opportunities for growth and advancement.

Mastering the Balance

Mastering the balance between assertiveness and accommodation is the hallmark of transformative leadership. This dynamic equilibrium is not a stationary point but an ongoing and active engagement across the spectrum of leadership power. The most effective leaders recognize the fluidity required to navigate this terrain, skillfully oscillating between the forward momentum of assertiveness and the protective embrace of accommodation based on the evolving needs of their team and organization.

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There are moments when the immediacy of challenges or the necessity to break through inertia demands a more assertive stance—a clear vision, decisive action, and the courage to push boundaries. In these instances, leaders step up with conviction, driving initiatives forward and mobilizing their teams toward shared goals with a sense of urgency and purpose. This offensive approach is crucial for overcoming obstacles, seizing opportunities, and catalyzing growth.

Conversely, there are times when the situation allows for a more accommodative approach, where the emphasis shifts to listening, building consensus, and prioritizing the collective needs over individual agendas. Here, leaders excel by fostering an inclusive environment that values diverse perspectives and empowers others to contribute their best. This defensive strategy is essential for nurturing a culture of trust, collaboration, and long-term sustainability, ensuring that every voice is heard and valued.

Yet, the art of leadership lies in the ability to engage both assertiveness and accommodation within the same context, embracing the tension between these styles to generate a synergistic effect. Effective leaders navigate this duality by asserting their own perspectives while simultaneously accommodating the views and needs of others. This nuanced approach allows for a rich tapestry of ideas and solutions to emerge, fostering innovation and collective ownership of the path forward.

The dance between offense and defense in leadership requires a deep understanding of the unique dynamics at play within any given situation, coupled with the agility to shift modes as circumstances evolve. It's about knowing when to accelerate and when to pause, when to lead from the front and when to support from behind. This balance is not about compromising but about optimizing the impact of leadership through strategic adaptability.

When Offense is Defensive, and Defense is Offensive

Just as we read about teams who take a defensive approach to offense (e.g. conservative offensive plays) and take an offensive approach to defense (e.g. aggressive defensive plays), leaders often find themselves in situations where they must employ one approach for the ultimate purpose of the other.

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For individual leaders, the strategic interplay of offense and defense, assertiveness and accommodation, becomes a sophisticated dance of influence and intention – navigating the complexities of leadership with both finesse and strength.

Assertive Actions for Accommodative Purposes: One of the most compelling aspects of leadership is the capacity to use assertiveness to foster an environment of inclusivity and collaboration. A prime example is when a leader intervenes to quiet dominant voices in a meeting to make space for quieter, perhaps more reticent team members. This action, though assertive – even potentially aggressive – in nature, serves a deeply accommodative purpose: ensuring all voices are heard and valued. It's a strategic move to protect the integrity of the team's collaborative space and to democratize participation. Such interventions highlight a leader's commitment to equity and their willingness to actively shape the dynamics of group interaction for the collective good.

Accommodative Strategies for Assertive Goals: Conversely, adopting an accommodative stance can be a strategic approach to achieving assertive outcomes. For instance, a leader might employ active listening, empathy, and open-ended questioning to understand the root causes of resistance among team members to a new strategic direction. By accommodating these concerns – acknowledging and addressing them – the leader builds trust and consensus, which, in turn, facilitates the assertive push towards the strategic goal. This approach leverages accommodation to disarm resistance, creating a pathway to assertively advance organizational objectives with the full support of the team.

These examples illustrate the fluidity required in leadership, where the rigid application of a single style is often less effective than a dynamic, situational approach. Leaders must be adept at reading the room, understanding the needs of their team, and applying the appropriate mix of assertiveness and accommodation to guide their actions. This agility enables them to effectively manage diverse personalities, navigate conflicts, and steer their teams through complex challenges towards shared goals.

Central to a leader's ability to successfully integrate assertive actions for accommodative purposes, and vice versa, is emotional intelligence. This skill set, including self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management, empowers leaders to make nuanced decisions about when and how to deploy different strategies. Emotional intelligence facilitates the understanding that leadership is not about imposing one's will but about guiding, influencing, and sometimes blending strategies to achieve the best outcomes for the team and organization.

The integration of offense and defense in leadership, manifesting through assertive actions for accommodative purposes and accommodative strategies for assertive goals, underscores the complexity and art of effective leadership. It highlights the importance of versatility, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking in navigating the multifaceted challenges of leading teams. By mastering this balance, leaders can foster environments that are both dynamic and inclusive, driving their teams towards excellence with a deep understanding of the power of strategic flexibility.

Cho​osing the “Right” Play

In the complex and unpredictable game of leadership, the notion of choosing the "right" play at any given moment is more a myth than a reality. Much like in sports, where the success of a play depends on an array of factors – opponents' strategies, team dynamics, and the unpredictable nature of the game itself – a leader faces a similar conundrum. There is seldom a single correct choice that guarantees success. Instead, leadership demands a nuanced understanding of the situation at hand, a deep awareness of the available options, and the wisdom to make the best possible decision in the moment.

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The essence of effective leadership lies in intentionality – the situational awareness that there are choices, combined with a deliberate choice of action based on the situation. This intentionality requires leaders to be acutely aware of the dynamics at play, including the power styles and strategies employed by others within the same context. It hinges on a leader's goals and intentions, which guide the selection of the most appropriate and effective approach. Whether it's taking a bold step forward with assertiveness or creating space for collaboration through accommodation, the "best" play is the one that aligns with the leader's objectives and the team's needs.

Moreover, the concept of perfect decision-making is flawed, as it overlooks the inherent value of learning and growth that comes from navigating challenges. Just as in sports, where analyzing a play's outcome is crucial for future strategy, leaders must view each decision as a learning opportunity. Judging leadership "mistakes" too harshly can stifle innovation and risk-taking, leading to a culture of conservatism and fear. Instead, embracing a mindset that views every outcome as a chance for reflection and development fosters resilience, adaptability and growth.

In this light, the "right" play is less about infallibility and more about adaptability and learning. It's about making the most informed and thoughtful decision possible at the time, with the understanding that leadership is an iterative process. Each choice, each action, is a step in the broader journey of leadership development, where success is not measured by the absence of mistakes but by the ability to grow, adapt, and thrive amidst the ever-changing dynamics of leadership.

Your Next Play as a Leader

As we close this exploration into the art of leadership, it becomes evident that most leaders have been honed not in the strategic game of leadership itself but in their specific functions, fields, or disciplines. The true essence of leadership, however, diverges significantly from the technicalities of a particular field. It is less about the game on the field being played or the products and services delivered in business. Rather, it’s profoundly about the people on the field and within our organizations—the heart and soul of our teams.

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The leadership game is distinct and complex, requiring a unique set of skills focused on human dynamics, emotional intelligence, and the ability to navigate the nuanced spectrum of assertiveness and accommodation. This realization brings us to a pivotal moment in your leadership journey—a moment to embrace learning not just as an option but as a necessity.

Perhaps now is a great time to practice for next season. Step up to the challenge and make your next play your best play yet. Take a quick survey of your leadership power and identify some new plays that will help improve your next big opportunity.

Until the next Super Bowl, keep your balance!

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Article written by Pete Behrens, Founder & CEO of Agile Leadership Journey

Agile Leadership Journey, Pete Behrens May 29, 2024
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