A Team of Leaders (and No Manager)

Every year, in late October or early November, I enjoy a one-week vacation with seven friends in a cottage in the Belgian Ardennes. (OK, this time we actually ended up in the German Eifel, but that's beside the point.) This recurring vacation is the one week in the year that I most thoroughly enjoy, because it traditionally consists of four of my favorite activities: eating, reading, gaming, and sleeping.

Having just returned from our 5th get-together, I think it’s amazing how eight people, in a strange house, at the edge of the civilized world, and without a manager, are able to find ways of organizing themselves in such a way that everything gets done what needs to be done. Every year, each of us finds himself responsibilities and things to take care of. We usually have a Chief Coffee, Chief Fireplace, Chief Bread, Chief Garbage Cans, Chief Sauna, Chief Walks, and a Chief Groceries. These jobs are either taken or given, depending on our willingness to take on certain responsibilities (and our eagerness to play jokes on the others). Some of us take (or are given) the same job every year, while others switch jobs depending on their moods (and our feedback). This year I volunteered for the jobs of Chief Photography and Chief Money Pot. And when the Chief Eggs let our eggs cook for too long and for two breakfasts in a row (we want them cooked for 7.5 minutes thank-you-very-much), I promptly decided to take over his job, and was supported in this decision by all the others.

Our team of eight friends has no manager, but we do have an important goal: each one of us must have a good time, and all of us are responsible for that. This goal is always achieved, because we all act as leaders, together. Each problem we face is tackled by the most eager to solve it. Like, for example, when I accidentally let the coffeemaker overflow, thereby short-circuiting the entire kitchen. Our Chief Garbage Cans immediately disappeared down into the basement to find the fuse box, while the Chief Groceries and me figured out an entirely new way of making coffee without an operational coffee machine, and the Chief Coffee used one of the ladies’ hair dryers to clean and blow dry the coffeemaker. We were all leaders because we all took jobs that needed to be done, without being managed.

In a team of leaders, nobody wants to be the one doing the least amount of work. It’s great when one is bringing you a fresh coffee, another is making you a sandwich, and a third is deciding which cake she’s going to bake for you tomorrow. But it also means that you soon feel the pressure to contribute with your own share of work. (And even if you don't, there are seven assertive leaders around you hinting at what your share might be.) In my case, this resulted in the best soup I ever made…


The double potato/pumpkin-soup!


Many managers wonder how to make their teams perform well. The solution seems simple:

  1. Make each of them feel he/she is a leader;
  2. Give them a goal (like “make sure you all have a good time”);
  3. Hold the entire team accountable for the results;
  4. Let them do their stuff and don't get in the way as a manager.

This recipe brings out the best in people.

If you enjoy looking at pictures of foods and woods, here's the complete set.

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