Team Leadership: Taming the Lone Wolf

If you lead teams for a long enough time, you are likely to recruit or inherit a ‘lone wolf’ – a talented, capable individual who has a tough time fitting into your team. Smart, capable, and willing to challenge the status quo, you see their value; yet, often they are high-maintenance and disruptive to the rest of the team. Moreover, you typically don’t have the luxury of spending substantial amounts of ‘handling time’ with one team member given the typical time and performance pressures placed on most teams. So how do you quickly decide the value of the lone wolf to the team, versus the cost of him or her remaining?

Focus on the Pack, Not the Lone Wolf

Many years ago, on a picture-perfect New England autumn afternoon, I had taken my daughter to watch her middle-school football team play. On this Saturday, I was talking with the father of one of the players on the opposing team who had purposefully moved down the sideline, distancing himself from the coaches and players of his son’s team. He did this because he was both the parent of a player and a National Football League head coach. As you might imagine, this generated some expectations from other parents that his expertise might help his son’s team. This pressure is even greater when you are Bill Belichick, one of the most successful coaches in NFL history. As we watched the game, one young player, who was clearly a gifted athlete, was demonstrating behavior on the field and the sidelines that showed that he was focused more on his success than the success of his team. More than once, the team failed to make progress because this young athlete was out of sync with his teammates and coaches. Observing this, Bill turned to me and said, “Both that player and the coach, need to learn that the real strength of the wolf is the pack.” It was a simple, powerful observation about the nature of teams and team players versus lone wolves.

The foundation of highly-effective teams is strong, trusting relationships. The impact a lone wolf has on the success of your team should guide your decision regarding fit. To understand the impact, you need to assess two key areas of team effectiveness:

First, assess the health of your team values. Team values are the psychological and behavioral building blocks of a team. They include essential ingredients such as conversational equality, respect, and psychological safety. If values are healthy and supportive, they foster energy and engagement. If not, team effectiveness and wellbeing will deteriorate. Erosion of team values can occur even when just one team member’s behavior is counter to those values.

Second, assess team member relationships. High-functioning relationships are characterized by minimal gaps between teammates’ experiences with each other, versus their expectations as they work together to achieve the team’s goals. Experience-expectation gaps across key relationships are the number one reason for deteriorating team relationships and diminished performance.

The Strength of the Wolf is the Pack

Healthy values and strong relationships are the foundation of a highly-effective team. Strong relationships do not mean that people never disagree or that there cannot be strong, divergent points of view. In fact, a hallmark of excellent teams is their ability to embrace diversity and discourage groupthink. However, no team member, no matter how talented, should be allowed to violate the team’s values or diminish teammate relationships. If you allow those behaviors, and they persist, then over time you are going to see a deterioration in the effectiveness and well-being of the people on your team. By assessing both team values, and gathering feedback on teammate relationships, you will gain the insights to decide the value of the lone wolf to the team versus the cost of remaining.

As Bill Belichick observed, the real strength of any one member of your team comes from the entire team. People on highly-effective teams excel because of their teammates. Lone wolves may be talented, and of immense value to an organization, but that does not mean that they belong in a pack.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.