March 17, 2007

Literature Review

I read this phenomenal book and wrote a review for it for my FORGE course. As I've been relatively uninspired to write much in the last week, I give you a lit review. It's not that boring, really. At least, I hope not.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni


“Building a team is hard .” So summarizes The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni, in the timeless form of narrative, has given us an inside look at a dysfunctional team and its redemption. Kathryn, a middle-aged executive, has just been hired by “DecisionTech”, a fictional technology firm in San Francisco that seemingly has everything going for it; the best and brightest employees, a brilliant business strategy, and an innovative product. Despite the many advantages the company has over its competition, DecisionTech is losing ground and capital, placing successively farther and farther behind its competitors. This was, in no small part, due to the failing executive team. Under its former leader, Jeff, the team had progressively gone from a promising leadership team to a bickering, politicking rabble in desperate need of a good leader.

DecisionTech’s CEO, “the Chairman”, has decided that the company’s downward spiral has to end, and in a surprise move, hires Kathryn, an old friend, to manage the company’s executive team. Kathryn, he knows, specializes in the art of bringing teams together. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team follows the story of DecisionTech’s executive board under Kathryn’s leadership, as she introduces a new and counter-intuitive way for the team to work together and build the company back to the top.

The theory, derived from Lencioni’s many years of corporate business team experience, is that underneath every dysfunctional team is an absence of trust due to the team’s inability to be vulnerable with one another. This leads to a fear of conflict, often due to a team member’s need for artificial harmony. The lack of commitment this brings stems from ambiguity towards the team’s goals (since nobody can ever verbally disagree with one another to clarify those goals). Because of these low standards, people often avoid being accountable for their portion of the work, not wanting to spoil status and ego with the problematic results.

Critical Evaluation

I first heard Lencioni speak at a Willow Creek leadership conference back in 2004. A well-spoken man, his theory intrigued me, and I decided that some follow-up reading was in order. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was able to buy his book, after reading many other texts on leadership in light of the emerging missional church (thus, my first thought upon completion of Five Dysfunctions was, “wow, that fits really well into missional theory”). After returning to several of the aforementioned texts, I discovered that several, namely Eddie Gibbs’ Leadership Next, referenced Lencioni on several occasions, with good reason.

Lencioni’s theory is sound and well-integrated, if somewhat counter-intuitive; one would not expect “vulnerability” to be the deepest underlying reason for a company’s problems. One might expect “laziness” or “a team member” or perhaps even “incompetent employees,” but rarely would one expect seemingly unimportant personal issues to fall into the spotlight as the cause of a corporation’s misfortunes. He is very careful to keep the reader involved, though his prose is somewhat rudimentary.

The goal of this text is admirable: given a company (or by application, a church) that seems to have everything going for it, what can go wrong? Lencioni loads up this fictional company with the best training, the best executives, the best products, and the best technology. Then he shows what happens when the executive team doesn’t work together, a message to which many church leaders would do well to listen.

Most notable is the biblical nature of the message Lencioni strives to maintain. While the text is not overtly Christian, there are certainly biblical principles at work within and through the text, most notably the image of the servant-leader, of self-sacrifice, and of putting the company (“kingdom”) before all other priorities. While Lencioni never says outright “you have to put your company before your family” (something I don’t believe he’d advocate), he does note that within a company, each individual department must put the company ahead of itself. Kathryn (the main character who leads the fictional team) says, “as strongly as we feel about our own people and as wonderful as that is for them, it simply cannot come at the expense of the loyalty and commitment we have to the [company leadership].” This harkens back to Jesus’ own message in Matthew 10, when he says,

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—your enemies will be the members of your own household."
Our responsibility is not primarily to our families, our divisions, or our own interests, but must first and foremost be focused on the company (or kingdom, if this is a metaphor). The servant leader must model this above the whole team, who will look to his example, a principle that is shown time and time again through the text.

Churches would do well to heed Lencioni’s caution about accommodating people (workers such as Mikey) who simply do not want to change. Neil Cole explains this well in his discussion on the parable of the seeds:

“I am convinced that we have made a serious mistake by accommodating bad soil in our churches. … Because we think that the number of people is a sure sign of fruitfulness and success, we do everything we can to keep people. We try to woo people to come and keep coming. What we end up with is an audience of consumers shopping for the best “services.” We cater to this sort of thinking by trying to compete with other churches with a better show. … We must invest everything in the few who will bear fruit. Life is too short and the potential yields are too great to spend our lives babysitting fruitless people.”
A reader who looks to apply Lencioni’s theory to his church must be careful that, in this goal-oriented approach to results, he does not cease to put people first. The kingdom of God is about people; we are in the “business” of changing lives. Yet while Lencioni’s critique of business models (in which “bad soil” is tolerated) might seem overly harsh (especially when applied to churches), it is not out of line. In order to change lives, those lives must be willing to change, and if they are not, we must be willing to recognize that God has not brought them to a point at which they can accept our help, brush the dust off our feet, and move on.

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