Over the course of an otherwise mediocre career, few subjects fueled my passion more than leader development. I listened closely to good leaders, watched the poor ones closer, and shaped a personal approach to leading that captured the best examples while avoiding the worst. Along the way, I grew as a leader, a follower, and a member of one of the biggest teams in business today: the United States Army. And, truth be told, when you’re part of the biggest team around, you need to learn how to play well with others.

Even as my own leadership philosophy took form and matured, defining what it meant to be an effective member of a team was never far from my thoughts. So, as the years passed, I shared my thinking with others, taking on the role of mentor to some in the process. At the same time, I tried to help frame what it meant to be a productive follower, how to answer the inevitable question, “What do you expect from me?” That same question can be stated in many other ways, from “How can I provide the most value?” to “What can I do to be a better team member?” In every case, the answer was simple (simplicity is, after all, a principle of war), direct (why beat around the bush?), and clear (no smoke and mirrors here). Just the basics.

Being a productive and effective member of a team really isn’t that complicated. There’s no shortage of pithy maxims and quotes – like “There is no ‘I’ in team” or“He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader” – available to spur enthusiastic debate on the topic. Opinions are everywhere, with some advising focusing on soft skills while others emphasize hard skills. The truth is that there is no “secret sauce” to being a good team member: Do your job well, support the others on the team, and avoid being “that guy” who makes everything harder on everyone else.

So, what does it take to be a good member of a team? I focus on ten key characteristics:

1. Own your role. Being a member of a team means being a part of something bigger than yourself. It also means sharing the accolades (as well as the frustrations). It’s not about you, it’s about the team. When the team succeeds, you succeed; when the team fails…well, you get the drill.

2. Be heard. Ideally, you should fall somewhere to the right on the spectrum between a wallflower and a ‘spotlight ranger.’ Nobody notices a wallflower and nobody likes a spotlight ranger. Don’t be afraid to speak your opinion, but do so with…

3. Facts, not emotions. No matter how passionate you are about a topic, leave the emotion out of the discussion. Leave the drama on the Hallmark Channel. Stick to the facts, they drive decisions.

4. Be a good listener. Effective communication is about more than talking. Don’t monopolize the conversation; take the time to listen and reflect on what the other team members are saying. Ask questions that help drive the group’s discussions.

5. Be brief, be brilliant, be gone. If it takes you longer than five minutes to make your point, you’re wrong. Ideally, you should be able to communicate a message in less than that (it’s called an “elevator speech” for a reason). Everyone on the team has a voice; if you take theirs, they’ll remember.

6. Never bring a problem without a solution. Roadblocks are inevitable. When you can, take the time to think through possible solutions before dumping a problem on the group. Everyone will be thankful later.

7. Candor. Tell the team what they need to hear, not what you think they want to hear. Bad news isn’t fine wine; it doesn’t age well.

8. Innovate. You can’t build a better mousetrap by using the same blueprint everyone else uses. Try new things, look for new solutions, push the envelope. Innovate, create, revolutionize.

9. Color outside the lines. Take risks. Risk is a potent catalyst that fuels opportunity. The team relies on momentum to succeed, and that doesn’t happen without a willingness to accept risk.

10. Be the “go-to” person. Always put forth your best effort in everything you do, whether it’s a major project or an information paper on advanced porta-potty installation. Your work ethic and quality of effort will be recognized. You’ll know you really are the best at what you do when other people tell you that you are. It really is that simple.

There is also an eleventh, unlisted “maxim” on my list: have a sense of humor. However, if you tell someone this too early, you could be unleashing the village idiot on the group. Better to keep that one in the back pocket and encourage a little levity over time.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.