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Bad leaders make bad teams and bad times


Is your team underperforming? It's time to look in the mirror...

The Mahabharata contains a wonderful story of a wise man counselling a king, who asks, “Whether it is the king that makes the age or it is the age that makes the king”. The thinking behind the question is whether bad times produce bad leaders or bad leaders produce bad times. It’s a question I’ve often had cause to ponder as I talk to people about teambuilding. Often, leaders will ask me to do something with their teams to generate more honesty or openness, to address underlying issues within the team or just to make the team feel a little better. Whenever I’m asked to do this, there’s always a sneaking suspicion in my mind that the problems I’m being asked to resolve are actually problems caused by the leader themselves – as the Russians say, the fish rots from the head.

We all, eventually, become reflections of our leaders. Consciously or subconsciously, we model ourselves and our behaviours on theirs, for very simple reasons – they have the power to further our career and make our working lives happy or limit our career and make our working lives miserable. Most people, quite sensibly, will tend to tailor their behaviour in order to maximise the probability that the leader will do the former of those options, rather than the latter.

Consequently, most behaviour that you see in teams is largely a result of the behaviour of the leader. Notice I say “most” and “largely”: people have free will and their behaviour is sometimes influenced by things other than the behaviour of their manager but if you see problems in a team, look first at what the leader is doing. It’s a shame that often leaders don’t realise this and overlook their own behaviours in the search for what is “wrong” with their team.

This is hardly cutting edge thinking – after all, the Mahabharata is thought to be around 3,000 years old. But as I’ve written before in a previous blog, we often complicate things that are actually very simple and this is, after all, “a question about which thou shouldst not entertain any doubt: the truth is that the king makes the age”. It doesn’t just apply to formal leaders, or “kings”, either. Most of us are leaders of one sort or another – whether it’s within our families, within our peers or some other group and every day we each have the opportunity, even in some small part, to make the age. As you go about your business this week, what kind of age are you making?

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