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Antipatterns Compassion Invisibleism Vulnerability

Revisiting Patrick Lencioni’s First Team: It’s a Fractal!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an avid reader of business nonfiction bestsellers. Books that have been foundational to my thinking have been at least somewhat academic (and unfortunately esoteric) in nature, like Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action. If you’ve been following me on these pages, though, you know that I delight in citing two books that are straightforward yet uncommonly seen in offices around the world. There is, however, a third approachable book that I am fond of, which you might have read before, since it is comparatively well-known. That book, nearing its 20th birthday, is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

As with all things popular, critiques of Five Dysfunctions are in no short supply. The book’s Wikipedia entry does its job on this, citing some thoughtful summary criticism, noting that the “book is explicitly a work of fiction; it is not based on research and its practical recommendations lack empirical support.” There is truth to that, but if you have been following me on these pages, you will remember that I have a firm belief that truth is best derived from considering multiple perspectives over time. The many sorts of responses to Five Dysfunctions that have been penned over the years have brought helpful real-world framing to the book’s core concepts, adding value through a globally-shared dialog.

Here is yet another response, albeit one that I hope you find to be new and refreshing.


Like seemingly everything else from Five Dysfunctions, the “First Team” concept has been through the point-counterpoint wringer over the past two decades. If the “First Team” concept is unfamiliar to you, then let’s listen to Patrick Lencioni himself introduce it:

I’d like to suggest that, rather than eschewing ideas (such as this one!) that might not be strictly empirical, we consider them, at the very least, to be valuable thought exercises.

I am fond of the “First Team” thought exercise. Why? Well, I have been part of no fewer than five senior management teams in my career, and each one of those teams was at its weakest when we were not attendant to one another, and when we spent the majority of our time in our vertical silos. We were not as strategic, and our teams were not as tightly focused on the company’s mission, when we were more attendant to our departments than to senior teams. Anecdotal? Perhaps. But at the very least, I have developed an opinion that the “First Team” is worth talking about from time to time, wherever you may work.

A “First Team” Thought Exercise Extension, in Two Parts

Part The First

Whether we like it or not, our jobs are at least somewhat framed by our titles, whose primary purpose is, more or less, to denote our roles. These titles, apart from “President” and “CEO,” always connote some form of swim lane that we work within.

New-age management philosophies like Teal and Holacracy aim to reduce the significance of titles in an effort to encourage an organization’s members to better appreciate (and contribute to solving) the many challenges that exist across its functions. However, these management styles present their own challenges. First off, they are wholly unfamiliar to the majority of the working population. More notably, however, in accordance with the valiant mission to decentralize power and decision making, they sometimes confuse people who feel uncomfortable making certain types of decisions, and who would better serve an organization when given at least some amount of explicit direction. Human beings are animals (which we too often forget), and animals are conditioned to exist within a power structure, whether we like that or not.

This is not to say that Holacracy or Teal are unworthy of further work and refinement; they most certainly are. What’s more effective to say is: work is not what we want to do in comparison to the better parts of life (if it were, we wouldn’t get paid for it), and doing what we can to help it be less of a drag will vastly increase the likelihood that our employees will stay with us to solve the problems we are paid to solve. One thing that seems to resonate with all workers is when power structures are absent enough to allow people to breathe and bring their own values to the table, yet present enough to provide clear direction when needed.

All of this is to suggest that there is a desirable balance between power presence and power absence, and that power absence is something that needs focus, since it is not as natural as power presence. The “First Team” thought exercise is most useful, in my opinion, in helping organizations find that better balance. That’s because, when we encourage a First Team mentality, we have to work hard ensure that the teams of people who report into the First Team have healthy team dynamics of their own. More on that in a bit.

I think teams struggle to identify when it’s time to engage further with the “First Team” thought exercise, to calibrate their work toward its prescribed dynamic. Here are six questions that will help you know:

  1. Are the team members aware of each other’s professional issues, and are they willing to spend the time to contribute to each other’s success in overcoming those issues?
  2. Are the team members aware of each other’s personal issues, to the extent necessary to help others empathize with their challenges meeting professional expectations?
  3. In the spirit of invisibleism, are all team members paying attention not only to what they see, but what they do not see?
  4. Do the team members have a rapport that allows for vulnerability on a routine basis, wherein a team member can openly share a personal deficiency or fear without reprisal, and with compassion?
  5. Does any member of the team feel that it’s a “drag” to spend time with their “First Team” when compared to spending time with the team who reports into them, or with their customers/stakeholders?
  6. Are there “factions” within the team that draw a subset of the team together more powerfully than the entire team is drawn to itself?

If you can answer yes to any of these six questions, it’s time to recalibrate your First Team dynamic.

It’s entirely possible for the First Team concept to go too far. That is easier to identify through these two anti-patterns:

  1. When the team too often feels like an “escape” from the difficult work any of its members have to do, and First Team members abandon their responsibilities to their Second Teams.
  2. When (you are lucky enough to hear grumblings that) the team is a “clique” who merely likes to enjoy lunching and drinking together, and is inaccessible to outsiders.

Remember, this is all about balance.

Part The Second

Sometimes the best way to see where you are is through triangulation.

In this case, let’s consider what all of the above means to the team of people who report into you, who students of Lencioni might call your “Second Team.”

As a leader for your Second Team, you would do well to encourage them to be a First Team unto themselves (and I do mean that they, without you, comprise this First Team). Despite all that has been written about Patrick Lencioni and his work over the years, this is not a conclusion that most people seem to draw, yet I suggest that this is, in fact, your most important responsibility as your Second Team’s leader.

In other words, don’t limit the “First Team” thought exercise to your executive team. Understand that it is fractal in nature, and you would do well to encourage it wherever you find leadership groups in your organization. Wherever a First Team exists, the Second Team will need to be able to better self-manage when their leader needs to tend to his or her First Team needs, and the First Team thought exercise will be especially valuable to prepare that Second Team for those moments.

Are you creating an environment where your Second Team can answer “yes” to the six questions above, while avoiding the two anti-patterns?

If so, then congratulations.

If both your First Team and Second Team are exhibiting the optimum balance, then hats off to you: it’s time for a well-deserved, relaxing vacation.

But we are imperfect creatures, living in an imperfect world. Most of the time, we will find ourselves working on maintaining the right balance between nurturing our First Team while helping our Second Team nurture its own First Team dynamic.

Remember: what we are looking to achieve, in the end, is an appropriate balance at any given moment between power presence and power absence for the people who are looking to us for leadership. If your Second Team is able to be its own First Team, then step away and work on your First Team. If your First Team and Second Team are both having problems, do not focus on your Second Team at the expense of your First Team, but don’t walk away from them, either. Seek to help your Second Team regain its balance while you remind them that your First Team needs balancing, too. Make the balance part of the conversations you have with both of your teams.

But keep a close eye on anti-pattern #1. None of the above is to suggest that your Second Team should ever feel like they have been abandoned by you. They deserve your leadership. Power abhors a vacuum, and our animalistic conditioning for leadership structures will ensure that your unofficial replacement is eventually found. That would be a tragedy for your team.

The “First Team” is a handy tool. It is a fulcrum for introspection, and it can help you achieve the some of the best elements of Teal and Holacracy without completely reinventing your organization. Keep it in a front pocket, use it often, and don’t neglect your duty to pay it forward to the teams you lead. It’s good for them today, and should you depart — whether through attrition, retirement, or otherwise — it will condition your organization for smoother succession tomorrow.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSUD7WHzFTw.

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