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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Ferriell

Essential Disciplines of Effective Teams

How does anyone achieve anything that is great? Discipline. A core quality underlining any worthwhile accomplishment is discipline. The high performance athlete, the skilled craftsman, the disciple-making missionary, the accomplished musician will all have arrived at their accomplishments through prolonged discipline. The core mission which Jesus gave to his followers was to "make disciples." (Matthew 28:19) At the heart of this word discipline is disciple, as seen by the first five letters of each word. They are words which look similar because they are similar. A disciple is a person of discipline who gives himself over to a life of learning and training to grow in increased effectiveness.

This is true for our personal lives, but it is just as true for the teams we are called to lead. Effective teams cannot realize higher and greater levels of effectiveness unless there is a culture of discipline. Yet a culture of discipline with a team has a different dynamic than personal discipline. The leader is not dealing with his own behaviors but those of a group and the group with each other. So, how is this developed?

In this article we will look at three disciplines of effective teams and five key practices on how to build them.

Three Disciplines of Effective Teams

Effective teams accept failure but not incompetence.

Teams which move toward increased effectiveness in their mission will have to venture toward an unknown future without guaranteed results. Because a successful outcome is not guaranteed there necessarily has to be a tolerance for failure so people do not fear taking risks. However, a tolerance for failure is not the same as a tolerance for incompetence. New ideas may ultimately fail, however failure cannot be based on poor planning, lazy work habits, or mediocre management.

Failure is acceptable if there are valuable lessons learned which otherwise would not have been discovered. Failure is productive when it yields useful information relative to its costs. This kind of failure should even be celebrated. For example, the lesson learned may help to understand how to better communicate an idea, or how to work with the particular interests of a target audience, or where efforts toward an outcome need to refocus.

Effective teams are safe but fiercely honest.

To innovate, solve problems and build camaraderie, effective teams need a direct and relentlessly honest dialog and debate. This requires a climate in which people feel they can speak truthfully and openly without fear that it will reduce their value or place on the team. The Apostle Paul called this "speaking the truth in love." (Ephesians 4:15) If people are afraid to openly challenge views, debate ideas, and raise alternative perspectives, trust and innovation will decline. There requires an environment of relational safety.

This relational safety, though, does not confuse being "nice" for being respectful. There is nothing inconsistent about unreserved candor and personal respect. In fact, teams that practice candor demonstrate they do respect each other. If I respect someone I will want to hear their honest opinions and views. The more important the decision, the more vital each team member's input will be. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, at a battle-plan meeting with top officers, three weeks before the invasion of Normandy started the gathering by saying, “I consider it the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in this plan not to hesitate to say so. I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.”

Effective teams respect competency over titles.

In disciplined teams, people are given wide latitude to take actions, make decisions, and voice their opinions. Deference is granted on the basis of competence, not title. Whatever the organization chart may look like, these teams are culturally flat: they allow for greater sharing regardless of title, rank and hierarchies. This is how Jesus structured his kingdom community. He expressed this as follows:

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12)

A structure which promotes mutual respect generates a richer diversity of ideas because they tap into the knowledge, expertise and perspectives of the broader community of contributors.

A flatter organization does not mean lack of leadership, though. Flat organizations (sometimes called Leading From Behind) require stronger leadership than hierarchical (top- down) ones. The serious danger of flat organizations is that they can decline into chaos when leadership fails to set clear priorities followed with personal accountability. There needs to be freedom and initiative but within clear boundaries. A disciplined team is like a river, flowing through a canyon. The walls of the canyon channel the energy of the water so that it cuts a clearly defined groove. Imagine this same water flowing across a plain. The water spreads far and wide because there is no clear direction. It slows down and becomes muddy and stuck.

Getting There

Let's look at five practices which will help to build momentum for effective team development.

1. Practice legacy leadership. This is what is called fifth level leadership where the goal is to elevate leaders within your team who will carry on the missional legacy of the team beyond the current key leader.

2. Build with the right people. A culture of discipline is simply impossible without people who practice self-discipline. If you do not have the right people, you cannot develop the right team.

3. Lead with questions not answers. Asking strategic questions is the most important skill of a leader. This breaks down defenses opening dialog and creating greater insight and initiative.

4. Remove personal perks. Structure your teams toward missional success not personal status. If there are perks or benefits which have nothing to do with the success of the team's mission then remove them. Personal perks built on reinforcing status create an artificial separation which diminishes team trust and communication.

5. Define clearly the team mission. If you do not provide a clear vision of what your team is about there will be confusion in understanding and diminished ownership in the mission. This result will necessitate hierarchical and bureaucratic controls.

As Jim Rohn wisely explains:

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

Are you called to multiply disciples, contact Anthony at

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