Thoughts on Leadership: The Ideal Team Player

This week my travels found me in Irvine, CA for an action-packed agenda. First, I completed a webinar with Debbie De Grote, next I recorded a podcast with Tom Ferry, then I met with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Real Living Real Estate team members and finally, I participated in a Mavericks Think Tank and Peer Review.

My meetings this week served as a reminder that there’s a distinct difference between being a team member and being a team player. At our companies, we hire those who have the passion to succeed and the collaborative spirit to help others succeed, too.

But what is a team player and how can you discern an ideal one? In his national best-selling book, “The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues” author Patrick Lencioni seeks to identify the traits that make a true team player.

I recently listened to the book, which describes through an allegorical framework how an ideal team player operates and why he or she is so critical to business success. Lencioni uses a fictional story to explain: An entrepreneur named Jeff moves to Napa Valley to help his ailing uncle run his family’s construction business. He successfully completes the task of hiring 100 new employees by using a three-virtues system to evaluate, measure and hire, defining ideal team players as those who are humble, hungry and smart.

In the book, Lencioni describes these three virtues with helpful detail:

Humble. “Great team players lack excessive ego … they are quick to point out the contribution of others and slow to seek attention for their own,” Lencioni writes. He also says that humility is the single-greatest attribute of an ideal team player. Lencioni warns against hiring an arrogant team member, as egotism will negatively impact the overall performance of the team. He says there are two kinds of people who lack humility: First, people who are overly arrogant, boastful, attention-seeking and firm in the belief that everything is about them. Second, people who lack self-confidence but “are generous and positive with others.” Lencioni concedes this latter group is harder to spot but no less detrimental to company culture and morale. “While they are certainly not arrogant, their lack of understanding of their own worth is also a violation of humility,” he writes. As C.S. Lewis famously stated, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Hungry. Hungry people, as Lencioni describes, “are always looking for more.” They take on more responsibility and they seek to increase their professional capabilities. They never have to be pushed and operate with self-motivation, constantly thinking of the next step or the next new idea that could take business to new heights. “Hunger … [is] a manageable and sustainable commitment to doing a job well and going above and beyond when it is truly required,” says Lencioni. A hungry team player goes above and beyond not because he or she is asked to do so but because intrinsically, he or she is motivated by challenges and the professional, collective triumphs they can bring.

Smart. This virtue is not about intellectual capacity or depth of knowledge; it’s about a person’s common sense and ability to interact well with others. “It has everything to do with the ability to be interpersonally appropriate and aware,” says Lencioni. Smart people ask good questions and give good answers. They engage in collaborative discussions with intent and interest. They also don’t act without considering how their actions will impact their colleagues; a smart person is considerate and compassionate. Another way to think about “smart” is to think about this virtue as “people smarts.” Some might consider this emotional intelligence but as Lencioni explains, emotional intelligence is one facet of a smart team player. Beyond emotional intelligence, smart people exercise good judgment and intuition in a group setting. He also says smart is a virtue to consider carefully; smart people can use their abilities for good … or for bad. Leaders should evaluate this virtue when it presents itself in a team member to determine if it’s being used for the good for the company or for the employee’s personal gain.

So, what’s the message? Ideal team players—like the ones I’m fortunate enough to work with every day—possess not one but all three of these virtues. They’re humble. They have little ego and can easily share their accolades with others. They’re hungry. They work with a sense of energy, passion and positivity. Everything they do is for the good of the team. They’re also smart. They help others feel appreciated, understood and included. The ideal team player model of humble, hungry and smart can be used to hire employees, assess current employees, develop employees who are lacking in one or more of the three virtues and embed the virtues into company culture. As Lencioni explains, once you do bring on a team member, hold him or her accountable to sustaining the virtues of humble, hungry and smart, which will ensure your business is characterized by ideal team players today, tomorrow and well into the future.

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