The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team

Step 2: Co-author a singularity

Unity is plural and a minimum of two.”

~Dr. R. Buckminister Fuller

Shh, don’t tell anyone this secret: The single greatest lever for transforming any group into a team is the feeling that they are in the same boat together. If I only had time and attention to work on one thing with the team, it would be this.


When people feel like they are in the same boat together their behavior towards one another is naturally more open, supportive, and collaborative. They are more willing than otherwise to give and ask for help.

There’s a Hole in Her Boat









Imagine Sally and Jane out in the middle of a large lake. Jane notices a significant leak in the canoe next to Sally’s left foot.

Does Jane –

a) pull out her cell phone, dial her other best friend and, snickering, say “Sally’s got a leak in her boat”

b) ignore it

c) say “Hey Sally, we’ve got a problem.”

I don’t think you need me to answer this for you.

But now, let’s say John and Stan are out in the lake in their own boats. John notices a leak in Stan’s boat. Are you as sure about what John would do as you are about what Jane would do?

I bet you aren’t.

Create a Context of Positive Outcome Interdependence

What’s at work in the illustrations above is called “outcome interdependence.”






Consider Jane and Sally in the canoe. Where effort and reward is concerned, they are positively interdependent. That means that when Jane works hard, Sally benefits, and when Sally works hard, Jane benefits. And, if Jane slacks off, Sally loses, so Sally might get on Jane’s case right away. Thus real-time feedback — both acknowledgement and correction — occur when people feel in the same boat together.







Now consider John and Stan. Without more information about the context of their both being in their boats on the lake, we really can’t say. But let’s say they are each there alone. John has little investment in what Stan does, and vice versa. They are independent.






But what if John and Stan are competitive members of the rowing club. They are each vying for the club championship of the decade and there are big stakes and bragging rights. John and Stan are negatively interdependent. That is, the closer John gets to his goal, the harder it is for Stan to obtain his. And vice versa of course. Consider also that the more John slacks off or experiences misfortune, the easier that makes Stan’s goal of winning — and might make Stan feel good, even if they are in the same club!

What About Personal Chemistry?

You may be interested to know that in the study of groups, outcome interdependence has replaced “interpersonal attractiveness” or “liking” as the primary predictor of group cohesion. Yes, relationship is important, but it is secondary to a shared context that rewards mutual support and winning. Said even another way: You and I may not like each other, but if our outcomes are positively linked we are far more likely to work effectively together.

The Task is the Reason for the Team

I used the term “singularity” in the title for emphasis — I like it. What I mean is that you want to co-author a focal point (with your teammates) in the future that you are working toward together. And you feel it as you observe each other working. You feel like you are in the same boat together.

Yes, it is important to align structures and rewards, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rewards in a hierarchy are scarce by design, and that sets up a huge opportunity for negative interdependence. Yes, get the rewards and recognition as right as you can, then focus even more on crafting the singularity as a narrative — a story — that you tell each other at every turn.

In my book, Teamwork Is An Individual Skill, and in workshops, I’ve used the term “task” — as opposed to singularity — to refer to what the team must achieve. If you think about it, the only reason for a team is because there is something to be done that requires a team.

The action step then is straightforward. Gather your executive team together and pose this question: What is our task? And more specifically, ask:

What must we do together that is:

  • larger than any of us,
  • requires all of us,
  • and none of us can claim individual victory until it is done?

    Keep the question in front of the group until you are all looking at each other and nodding your heads in agreement and smiling about the single answer you share.

    It is a tremendous source of leverage. Don’t mess it up.

    Shining the Right Light in the Right Place

    A grave mistake I see made repeatedly by leaders at all levels, and especially at high levels, is that they shine their million candlepower spotlights on the atomized elements such as individual roles, individual goals, and individual performance.





    Then they shine their penlights on the collective vision, mission, and other potential singularities.





    You will want to do the exact opposite. Only if you shine your million candlepower spotlight on a true shared singularity and your penlight on the individual pieces will you be able to have an outstanding executive team.

    In the next post we’ll look at how to build amazing day-to-day alignment and trust.


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