Strong Virtual Teams Require Strong Virtual Leaders

Updated: Mar 21, 2018

This past week, I was part of a conversation regarding leadership and organizational learning trends. One trend discussed is the number of companies who are adjusting liberal work at home policies. In addition to IBM and Yahoo, several government contracting firms are changing their remote work policies. I agree physical proximity enables invaluable water cooler moments; however, from experience distance does not need to foster a disconnected culture. There can be great energy around virtual water coolers. Successful virtual leadership is a matter of modeling behaviors that focus on constant and consistent touch points.

Yes, Virtual leaders must work harder than co-located leaders. If you, as a virtual leader, can focus your team on the global mission and assure that each member knows how they contribute to the team effort that combines with other team efforts to achieve the organizational goals, people will be less likely to create their own private silos. When silos do appear, performance problems can be identified quickly, and the leader can act to get the team back on track.

Helping people stay motivated by (1) focusing on what is important, (2) inhibiting activities that are not valuable, and (3) keeping everyone on track is a centuries’ old challenge for leaders. There is a wonderful story that provides a simple example of motivational leadership during a very confusing moment in history. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple, and the generals ordered the Israelites to prepare for the journey to Babylonia where they were to be taken as prisoners. The Temple High Priest encountered several men pulling large stones from the rubble and queried their purpose. The men proudly reported they were planning to take the stones to Babylonia to rebuild the temple, so they would have a place to pray while in exile.

Instead of congratulating their efforts, the High Priest told them the stones were much too heavy to drag on the arduous journey ahead; instead, they should be gathering food and clothing to support their families. The men asked, “How will we pray without a temple?” The High Priest told them since they would be traveling for many weeks and did not know where, or how long, they would be resting along the way, they would never know if there would be an enclosed structure to use for a house of prayer. In lieu of brick and mortar, he told them a sacred space would be created when a minimum of ten men gathered to pray.

Even without the aid of modern day leadership guidebooks, the High Priest (#1) focused the men’s attention on the priority task of gathering survival essentials, (#2) stopped the men wasting energy trying to drag heavy stones across the desert, and (#3) helped to keep them on track by providing an innovative solution to their concern that they would not be able to pray.

Similar to our modern day virtual teams, the Israelites were able to establish community norms and behaviors where ever their wanderings took them. Just as in ancient times, conference rooms and cubicles are not a requirement for people to be able to work together. An understanding that enables the convergence of cooperative human spirit is all that is needed to create a fully functioning community.

An excerpt from Creating a Greater Whole: A Project Manager’s Guide to Becoming a Leader, by Susan G. Schwartz.

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