Managing your leadership team

Differences don’t have to be liabilities. Harness them to succeed

Leadership teams are made up of diverse and talented individuals wanting to do what they do best, and who certainly do not want to be “managed.” Indeed, the very idea of managing a leadership team has humorously been compared to trying to herd cats. (If you have not seen the herding cats video, go to ).

As a CEO, what do you need to know to optimize the contributions of all members of your team?

I think there are two major lessons every CEO must absorb and practice.

First, accept the fact that what you want from each person is not going to be what they do. And vice versa — what they want from you is not going to be what they get from you. You have to come to terms with this dichotomy and also understand your role in that exchange. Can you recognize the value of what they do, even if it is not exactly what you hoped for? Might it be that what they bring to your enterprise is actually better than what you thought was needed? Can you be open enough to recognize that possibility?

I think this is what the Irish-English writer David Whyte has in mind when he speaks of the “conversational nature of reality” — meaning that it is in the coming together of two people that a reality common to both appears. Reality at work does not exist in the CEO alone but in the working together of talented colleagues.

A first step in understanding this duality is to practice what I call R&W — relax and wonder about the vagaries of the human condition. In other words, understand that differences do not have to be liabilities, and explore how differences can be harnessed.

Second, rather than worrying about the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, worry about the elephant in your brain, the one you don’t want to talk about. What is it that you think you know, but really don’t? What is it that you are loath to admit about yourself? What are your blind spots, biases and other tendencies that detract from your effectiveness, particularly as they relate to working with the members of your team?

Coming to terms with your own shortcomings is not easy. You may need help — perhaps from a neutral and objective third party, such as an experienced executive coach. But, in keeping with the elephant metaphor, you can start by reading “The Elephant in the Brain,” by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, or exploring the many important findings from behavioral economics and cognitive psychology.

These two lessons — accepting and celebrating the differences in your team members and learning and acknowledging as much as you can about your own foibles — make us aware of the fact that all of us are different, and that much can be gained by harnessing those differences. It urges us to “relax and wonder” at the same time that we learn about the elephant in our brain — those things we don’t know about ourselves — so we can better deploy our own strengths and weaknesses in concert with those of others.

Luis M. Proenza is President Emeritus of The University of Akron, the Trustees Professor of Higher Education and the Economy, and professor at The University of Akron.