The concept

Several times in my “leadership career” I heard an opinion that the team I lead is not “my team”.

This is the concept that i.e. Patrick Lencioni described as The First Team. This idea says that as a leader I should prioritize the needs of my co-workers, who are also leaders of other teams, rather than the team I lead. The team I lead should follow the team above it.

We observe that a lot, right? It makes sense, especially for hierarchical organizations, such as the military, religious, and state. But that probably works for the business too… After all, there are large and very successful organizations in the world that operate in a hierarchical manner.

I tried to deeply analyze the need for such prioritization. Lencioni says it’s to make the organization successful, not the particular team or department. And I think he is right, for most companies on the planet. However, he is not right when it comes to the best of the best.

Think different

How about the best companies? How do they do that? There are books on this topic too, such as “Built to Last” by Collins and Porras but the shortest visualization of what I mean by the “best” is probably in this Ted Talk given by Simon Sinek.

Great organizations think differently — they use ‘why’ as their momentum. There is no discussion of priorities, hierarchy, or particular team benefits. What you do is driven by why you do it.

So how apply to “The First Team” concept? As a leader, I try to build the same ‘why’ culture in the team I lead. And the same goes for other leaders (usually called peers). So there is rather a bottom-to-the-top relation than the opposite, and it’s more natural when all leaders work together because they need each other.

And guess what, some leaders did that in hierarchical organizations! There are great examples of bottom-up leadership in the military, such as the USS Santa FE - a nuclear submarine commanded by David Marquet, or the Navy SEALs led by Jocko Willink. Prioritizing the “peers” team is the last thing I would say about these leaders. It doesn’t mean they didn’t respect the “commanding style” deeply written in the military forces’ DNA. It means that all they did was driven by something more than the command from “the above”. All they did was driven by “why” and not by the needs of the team to which they belong.

Jocko Willink didn’t inspire his “extreme ownership” behavior in the team due to his peers’ needs. He did that because that was what he believed he should do to follow the U.S. army mission. David Marquet also did not introduce a leader-leader relationship for a better performance of the crew requested by other commanders. He followed his sense of “why” and came to this great idea. And the same goes for other great leaders of organizations with a feeling of a mission.

Every team is a “First Team”

After all, I think Patrick was right when it comes to the organization’s success over a team’s success however I feel like he put the emphasis on the wrong problem. I feel similarly to Simon Sinek that the success of the organization is driven by the culture, the identification with “why” rather than the approach to prioritizing teams. When that works well, priorities are the side effect rather than something to worry about.

It’s a very short article but a very important one for me. I think that as a leader I should not focus on the hierarchical needs but on the whole sense of the “why”. Only then I can treat every team as my “First Team” and every member as the best partner for building great things together!