I led two team projects during the last semester of my MBA program.
One project involved the development of a business plan for a new deli. The other involved the development of a consulting plan for a crime-laden, Miami neighborhood seeking to become a tourist destination that could one day rival South Beach.
The business plan was hypothetical. The consulting plan wasn’t—we were expected to present our findings to the area’s redevelopment reps at the end of the semester.
The business plan consisted of a three-member student team. The consulting plan consisted of a 19-member student team—essentially, my whole consulting class that term—and our professor.
You would think that the smallest team would be the easiest to lead, but it wasn’t. It actually proved to be the most challenging team I led during my time as an MBA student—and I led several teams during my two years in that program.
The main problem I faced with the business plan project stemmed from one team member—a team member who was the embodiment of chaos and confusion hidden beneath the seemingly, soft-spoken disposition of a financier in her late 50s.
The business plan project started out wrong from the get-go.
The teammate in question offered to research the marketing aspect of our business plan because marketing was something she said she always wanted to try. Despite my background in communications, I let her take on the marketing role while I tackled the finance and accounting—I’m a writer by profession, but I knew my way around a financial calculator well enough to take on numbers. Our third team member took on a couple of other, more minor tasks.
We set deadlines for our business plan, I became the designated leader, and everyone got cracking. At least that’s what I thought.
Around that same time, I was tapped to lead my consulting class’ project. Because our consulting project called for extensive research on revitalized districts and other statistics, the professor felt that my background in writing and reporting made me a shoe-in to lead and edit the project so I—and my workaholic tendencies—accepted.
Leadership has a funny way of exposing us to the rawness of human emotion while simultaneously challenging us to find the right way to respond to those emotions. As an MBA student, I typically responded to this challenge by letting my teammates know that I trusted them and valued the work they did, which I found would naturally encourage them to do better. If tension built up over an issue, I’d find a way to diffuse it and we’d move on.
Setting aside emotion and strapping on your game face is just something leaders do, I remember thinking. It’s what the leaders I followed in the newsroom did in an attempt to exercise better judgment. In that world, people who expressed their emotions weren’t cut out to be leaders; they were deemed weak. In business school, people shared that kind of thinking too. So I adopted that mindset and put it into practice.
I was about to learn, though, that this philosophy doesn’t always work.
The first challenge I faced happened on the consulting project. It came from a classmate who had worked with me in the past and who had asked to assist me in organizing the consulting project. One evening before class, I asked him for an update on something he had to do for the project when he looked me dead in the eye and—in a feeble attempt at humor—said “I hate you.” I kept my gaze fixed on his, smiled, told him that I knew he hated me, and asked him to get back to me on what he needed to turn in. The idea of someone straight-up “hating” me irked me a little, but probing the depths of this alleged hatred—which, for all I know, may have been quite real to some extent—didn’t interest me. Getting the work done did. Period.
That small hiccup soon passed and, fortunately, the group began to experience a sense of camaraderie as the project took off in the weeks that followed.
Then I hit the second rough patch—the worst leadership challenge I faced in the MBA program.
When our first deadline came up for the business plan, the dubious teammate I mentioned earlier failed to deliver anything. I gave her a new deadline and, knowing that her background wasn’t in marketing, I offered to help her with the research, if needed. I never got a response about my offer and she, again, failed to turn in her work. I set a third deadline and this time she turned something in—that “something,” however, was very poor and lacked the quality needed for the business plan.
Disheartened that my attempts at being nice, accommodating, and supportive had failed, I confronted my teammate—via email—and asked her if she wanted to swap and take on the finance and accounting portions of the project, which I had almost completed, so I could rework the marketing portion. That made matters worse. When she replied telling me “you knew I wasn’t good with marketing, I’m good with numbers,” that was the straw that broke the MBA student’s back. I scheduled a team meeting with our professor to see if he could intervene and help sort things out.
He intervened, all right. But the intervention wasn’t what I expected.
The professor turned the gun on me before my teammates arrived at the meeting and said that as team leader, I should understand that my teammate is an older student whose life, circumstances, and motivations are much different than mine. He told me that not everyone can meet my expectations and that I should show more patience.
“She could be your mother,” he told me. I don’t remember if my jaw dropped to the floor after hearing that, but it probably did with a very loud thud. I was being asked to show sympathy toward someone who failed to do her work repeatedly without offering any reason or showing any consideration for her teammates. At the same time, my other professor—the one overseeing the consulting project—had been praising and lauding my work leading the consulting team, where this type of careless behavior was not accepted and hadn’t occurred to this scale.
I was now smack-dab in the middle of a disorienting dilemma—one authority figure was telling me my approach was excellent; the other, that my approach was too stringent.
So I did the only thing I knew how: I set aside my anger at my teammate’s inconsideration and focused on getting the work done—something the professor overseeing the business plan project said was more important than squabbling.
The tension and resentments, however, remained. I was so angry at my teammate’s inconsideration and the scolding I received that I found it hard to look her in the eye. But, with the professor’s newly imposed deadlines in place after our meeting, everyone completed the work on time and we received an A, surprisingly enough.
Feeling drained from that experience, I shifted my focus back to consulting, which felt much easier to handle. I felt engaged with every team member—even the guy who presumably hated my guts—and our consulting plan received stellar reviews from the district reps who attended our presentation.
In hindsight, sweeping my emotions under the rug for the sake of getting work done may have been a bad move. Engaging a dialogue that would have created a space for these emotions to surface in order to correct the assumptions and false pretenses that fueled them may have been a better option.
Sadly, though, I can’t say I was expected to do that—not by an authority figure and not by my teammates.
“Our culture,” transformational learning theorist Jack Mezirow wrote, “conspires against collaborative thinking and the development of social competence by conditioning us to think adversarially in terms of winning or losing, of proving ourselves smart, worthy, or wise.”
As a leader, getting the job done with little to no regard for the emotions involved made the difference between winning or losing—between receiving good marks or mediocre ones. In this light, leadership meant proving myself smart or worthy or wise because I could cast aside, what could be perceived as, weakness.
This perspective—a pillar of Western business philosophy—helped me get the job done that term. In hindsight, though, the supressed emotional burden involved in this kind of thinking was counterproductive and much too stressful to bear.