The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues

Patrick M. Lencione 2016
Read: 2024
Education/Leadership, Non-Fiction, Reading Now

One of my favorite parts of my career in public education is the teams that I have been fortunate to be a part of. I wrote a post on my love of teams back in 2020, celebrating teams that included:

  • History classes that I taught
  • New teachers (and eventually veteran ones too) at San Lorenzo High School
  • The entire faculty and staff at Malibu High School
  • Cabinet Level and Site Leader Teams while I was a superintendent and assistant superintendent

I feel lucky to have been part of them all. I remember one time while I was superintendent in Manhattan Beach, my friend Ida, who was one of my board members and remains a friend, blog reader, and golf companion, said to me in her direct Dutch style, “You have a lot of flaws, but you sure do hire great people, and they love working with you.” I took that as a compliment. I’m not sure she meant it that way, but that’s how I took it.

In my educational consulting world, I get to work with a few leadership teams, and I love helping them be the best they can be. In my quest, I was reviewing an older book by Pat Lencione, The Five Dysfunctions of Teams (2002). I never liked the title. Lencione is a relentlessly positive person, but the book title is anything but positive. Still – it had good lessons about trust, healthy conflict, accountability, commitment, and focusing on results. All important stuff.

As I was re-reading the book, I came across a much more positively titled book that Lencione wrote in 2016 – The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues. As with his Dysfunctions book, the first part of the book is a fairly corny parable. And in the parable, the CEO and his team know that employees need to work as a cohesive team if they are going to successfully rise to a challenge. They decide on three qualities that create the ideal team player, and start to build their company around those qualities. It’s super simple, yet to me, it hits home in many ways.

The three characteristics are HUNGRY, HUMBLE, and SMART. Let’s look at all three briefly.

HUNGRY is the easiest one of all. The best team members are not people who simply put in the time and the expected effort. They want their team and organization to be as successful as possible, and they are willing, and even enjoy doing all they can to make that happen. On every team that I have loved, I have been surrounded by hungry, motivated, and inspired colleagues, ready to do whatever it takes not only to do their part, but to help others do theirs.

HUMBLE is a little more challenging to understand. If you know me, you know that I have a pretty decent opinion of myself. I don’t think I’m the greatest, but I believe in myself enough that when others are critical or unkind towards me, I can look at myself and assess whether I made a mistake or not. If I did, I am ready to own it and move on. But that confidence gives me the strength to stay in the game in the face of sometimes very loud critics. Lencione quotes C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I love that. An ideal team member values every person on the team. Position and rank do not matter. This is my favorite of the three team member qualities, as I totally agree that this kind of selflessness makes for the best team members.

SMART is the last word he uses. I don’t love the term. It has nothing to do with your intellectual abilities. It is much more about your EQ – your emotional intelligence. How well can you read the room, understand the needs of others, and perhaps most importantly, understand the impact of your words and actions on others?  Perhaps AWARE would have been a better term. Sometimes it is difficult to be both HUNGRY and SMART/AWARE.

All of these characteristics can be developed. And the book does go into how to do that. As I use this lens to reflect on every team that I’ve loved being part of, I can go person by person and put two or three checkmarks on each of them. As I look back at my work with the large admin team in my last position, I can put three large checkmarks next to almost every person. I never thought that a large district like that could have the feeling of such a cohesive team, but because it was filled with HUNGRY, SMART, and HUMBLE leaders, that’s exactly what it was. 

I appreciate this book far more than his Dysfunctions book. With this book, you must focus first and foremost on being the best team member you can be. Then, how can you help others to grow in their areas of challenge. I highly recommend it, and you can purchase it here.

One Comment

  1. Martha Kirspel says:

    Thank you, Mike! I enjoyed your review. Very real and seemingly basic qualities that are so impactful when combined. I’ll find the time to read it. You’re just the bestest!!!😃

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