The Myth of Self-Steering Teams

To illustrate the first key point in this Fulcrum episode let’s pop over to Japan.

The jury is still out on which of the two is the more challenging: Herding cats or setting up a Japanese self-steering team. Because the DNA of the Japanese culture – being so strictly, unforgivably hierarchical – does not accommodate the idea of self-steering. Now let’s zoom out and into Italy. It’s a somewhat similar story, happening inside very different cultural settings.

So, to begin with, the very concept of self-steering is region-specific and largely a product of cultural DNA, with some cultures more accommodating than others.

Moreover, each culture is coded with its idea of hierarchy – from the most rigid to the real democracies. How a culture is coded in this respect determines how it shapes human interaction.

Because of their egalitarian education, the Dutch, though, revel in the mere thought of a self-steering team. It just so much fits their ideals. And they are also pretty good at it when the need for it arises.

Regardless of cultural DNA, what is the actuality of the very idea of self-steering teams? Does it work in the real world?

Case study

Imagine two teams of identical characteristics operating in two different establishments. One – let’s call it Moony – being led by an incompetent CEO and conflicted board; the other – let’s call it Brightstar – led by a CEO and board possessing a bright vision, clarity of purpose and an outstandingly collaborative servant leadership capacity.

No matter how good a team in terms of talent, motivation and capability, we cannot even begin to discuss the idea of self-steering in Moony. Because incompetent leadership makes for a confused company culture and a confused company culture does not lend itself to proper teamwork. A self-steering team is part of a network of people and teams and if that network is starved of a clear strategic vision and guiding leadership, self-steering rapidly evolves into despair management.

Brightstar’s quality of leadership, however, pioneers a culture of cooperation and innovation, with responsibility and accountability engraved in its DNA, thereby creating the necessary conditions for the emergence of the self-steering way and spirit.

Now swap the CEO and boards between Moony and Brightstar, to witness Brightstar becoming a Moony and Moony becoming a Brightstar in short order. This is the eternal actuality and power of leadership: No forum of people, in any sector, can progress and evolve in the longer-term timeframe without the presence of servant leadership. The historical trap that we must escape is the world habit of fixing on individuals. True leadership is never about a person leading people. It is rather about people on a mission; people working to realize a constructive purpose; and the structures that are put in place to facilitate this process. True leadership is thus a dynamic process that forever focuses on who best facilitates a next step rather than a person in charge becoming the purpose; a state which is responsible for some of the terminal ills of humanity.

A State of mind

Self-steering is a state of mind that forms in environments that promote and reward responsibility and accountability. However, even in the best led organizations, someone must be positioned to ensure clarity of objectives and progress-chasing.


David Gommé

World Copyright 2018© David Gommé

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