The Danger of Outranking Your Team

I was enjoying a meal with a well-known Christian leader a few weeks ago. He is a brilliant man who leads a large team of great people. We were discussing a particularly entrenched dynamic on his team that he didn’t understand and didn’t like. It seemed every time he wanted the team to wrestle with a difficult challenge their organization was facing, the team would always haltingly poke around for the “right answer”–the solution that the team believed their leader had already thought of. To them, it wasn’t a discussion so much as a test to see if they could or would come up with the same answer the leader had already decided on.

Only, this really wasn’t the leader’s intent. He really did want them to wrestle together to find solutions to creative challenges, and he really didn’t already have an answer in mind. But no matter how often he would say that, the team didn’t seem to believe him. They would keep trying to uncover the “right answer” as he saw it rather than offering their own unvarnished opinions and ideas. All of this was doubly frustrating because this happened to be a team full of creative powerhouses!

So what was really going on here?


It’s difficult to unravel dynamics like this without first understanding the notion of “rank” on a team. Rank is a way of describing a person’s level of authority on the team within a particular arena. Every member of a team has some form of rank. The kind of rank we’re most familiar with is positional rank. The leader in this story, for example, is the boss over everyone on his team. So he has the highest positional rank.

But there are many other kinds of rank that exist on a team, and these often carry more weight than positional rank. For example:

  • intellectual rank (who’s the one that the team holds as the smartest among them?),
  • emotional rank (which team member’s emotional state matters most to the team?),
  • spiritual rank (who is seen as the wisest spiritually?),
  • social rank (who is the one who holds the group together as a relational community?)

…and so on.

There are as many types of rank as there are arenas of authority. Having a particular kind of rank in a team is not the same thing as playing a particular role; in fact, sometimes there can seem to be little connection between a person’s rank and their role on the team. The person taking the notes (a role) may be the one with the greatest emotional rank on the team (i.e. when he’s happy, everyone’s happy; when he’s upset, the group stops everything to “make it better” for him). Or the person with the lowest paid job may have the highest social rank (i.e. she’s the one who has the power to either include or exclude anyone on the team from the social community within the team or the organization).

So back to this leader’s story. His problem was that he was carrying too much rank in too many arenas within the team, and that was effectively shutting down the team’s capacity to function creatively. Besides having positional rank on the team, he also had the highest intellectual rank, and the highest emotional rank. He was the boss. He was seen as smarter than anyone else in the room. And everyone on the team was bent on keeping him emotionally happy. No wonder the team couldn’t have open creative discussions!

Now that he knows about his rank (most people are unaware of the rank they hold within a team), he is able to intentionally “give it away” it to others on the team. For example, he’s shifting the organizational structure so that others on the team have more positional authority. He’s also begun to consciously defer to the team’s collective intelligence in many key decisions as a way of transferring his own intellectual rank to others on the team. Finally, he’s learning to better manage his emotions to avoid inadvertently hijacking the team’s creative process when he feels frustrated or sad.

What about your team (or teams)? How do you notice “rank” impacting your team?

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Michael Warden

Michael is a leadership coach and team dynamics expert who partners with Christian leaders to help them become better leaders and help them change the world.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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