Lead with the best version of yourself.

How to Lead Where Excellence is Already the Norm

By Terry Lee and Chevy Cook

It’s no surprise that elite performers and high achievers tend to produce at a higher level, have outsized impact on their organizations, and are rewarded with selection, promotion, and more leadership opportunities. Particularly stellar leaders may be selected to lead unique and high-performing teams that perform critical missions. These roles present a daunting challenge for new appointees, in which leaders’ past experiences may not correlate to the new environment. They will likely have fewer, if any, peers to compare notes with. For example, an Army officer who has been successful in their basic branch, has operational experience, and demonstrated desired behaviors before being accepted into the special operations forces (SOF) community will undoubtedly have to prove themselves quickly again as a SOF leader. How do you excel as the new member of a unique and high-performing team and as their leader? 

Although our perspective lies in service as Army officers, unique and high-performing teams exist well outside the Army enterprise. Startup founders and new C-suite hires innately understand the weight of this problem set, for example. Although how one leads is impacted by industry trends, political influences, their network, and other factors, proven methods exist to weather the storm of being the new leader of a unique and high performing team. We provide leaders three key takeaways: defeat imposter syndrome, identify informal leaders and complete foundational training, and accomplish team and senior leader expectations. 

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Trust the Process

As you meet the team and build habits to understand your new environment, you will experience a wide range of emotions which may include fear, anticipation, and insecurity. If unchecked, these feelings can lead to imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that causes people to believe they are undeserving of their opportunities. Yet, you have only received trusted positions due to clear evidence of previous success and future potential. Imposter syndrome can be further exacerbated on a high-performing team, as you are likely joining a high-pressure environment with less margin for error. It is key to have a healthy method of regulating these emotions; ultimately you must keep imposter syndrome in check to lead the organization toward its future.     

When experiencing imposter syndrome, remember to give yourself grace and challenge your emotions for a more constructive outlook. Among other ways to move forward, share your insecurity with trusted friends, mentors, or health care professionals. Being equal parts vulnerable and reasonable will allow you to be objective as you analyze the differences between your previous experiences and your new environment, gaining momentum in the new leadership opportunity. 

Another way to combat imposter syndrome is with the objective perspective that you are not here by chance. Your selection was made using a deliberate process, often with nuanced criteria applied to more exclusive roles.  Hiring entities will apply more scrutiny when selecting leaders for unique and high-performing organizations, seeking candidates who fit specific attributes essential for the future. Today the Army uses personnel management systems like the Active Duty Officer Assignment Interactive Module (AIM) and the Command Assessment Program (CAP) to select officers for assignments. Other industries may rely on the board of directors or special hiring boards to screen applicants for key leadership positions. The attributes these systems screen for are aligned to current and future requirements that will make or break the organization. Once selected, use this vote of confidence as confirmation to maintain your identity and counter imposter syndrome. You are the right pick for the job and must remain confident, leverage your strengths to drive the organization forward, and remain open to the new environment.  

Identify Informal Leaders and Pursue Foundational Training Before Making Change

Leaders assuming new roles on already high performing teams should place extra focus on relationship building and foundational training before providing new input or making change. Forbes Coaches Council member Sheila Goldgrab advises leaders to seek relationships with informal leaders to understand their potential objections to change. Developing genuine relationships with informal leaders will make allies while learning the team’s issues, motivations, and capabilities. 

Informal leaders in unique and high performing teams have significantly more influence than they may in other organizations due to their tenure, niche skills, or continuity between leadership. In the military, the informal leader you seek a relationship with may be the seasoned platoon sergeant who is the pulse of the company and the battalion. In the civilian world, you may be inspired by the vice president who consistently rallies their fellow vice presidents and seems primed to join the c-suite. In both cases these leaders are noticeable, have outsized impact relative to their title, and are sought by other respected leaders for advice. 

Foundational training is essential for high-performing leaders to build requisite skills, experiences, and frameworks to effectively lead, although it may be exercised differently among industry. Based on their studies on the fields of clergy, law, engineering, nursing, and medicine, Ann Colby and William Sullivan of Carnegie Foundation’s Preparation for the Profession’s Program proposed a framework for the commonalities in professional preparation across different fields. They describe specific “apprenticeships” for each profession that must be provided to emerging professionals in any field. 

Most Army leadership roles have required foundational training gates. For example, Army battalion commanders must now complete the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP) and various courses organized by their branch (i.e. career field) and local installation. Foundational training in other industries is less regulated but no less common–or beneficial. Established companies in public facing industries such as consulting and media have developed widely consumed executive training programs such as Bain & Company’s Bain Academy, Deloitte’s Deloitte University, and NBCUniversal’s Page Program. Even if there is no existing training pipeline for your next leadership position, you should invest in learning the essential skills and culture of your team to inform your decisions, have shared experiences, and ultimately improve your ability to lead. 

Manage Senior Leaders’ and Your Team’s Expectations 

As you familiarize yourself with your new environment, you must quickly gain traction to fulfill the expectations of both senior leaders and your new team. In many cases the senior leader you’re most sensitive to is your boss, but additional attention can be devoted to strategic committees, private equity firms, or interested executives. In either place, it is key to create value through the focus areas your senior leadership requires, whether combat readiness rates or profit margins. High-performing organizations likely have an outsized impact compared to other organizations, so it is even more critical to clearly communicate with both senior leaders (up and out) and your team (down and in). Clarifying expectations and context upfront can keep you out of later problems by ensuring that you and your boss’ priorities are aligned. 

If managing your boss’s desires is challenging, managing the team’s expectations to define and accomplish success can be another critical hurdle to clear. Avoid the landmine of allowing the team’s previous success to foster complacency or other dangerous behaviors! When a military leader joins a decorated unit, such as the 75th Ranger Regiment or the 82nd Airborne Division, they will inherit experienced teammates with numerous operational deployments and personal success. Some leaders may find comfort in maintaining the team’s proven and validated status quo. But without an azimuth check or the new leader’s perspective, you can unintentionally pad the team’s ego–or worse, lay the foundation for ethical failure. When defining success for the team, it is key to be open and inclusive to your team’s goals, motivations, and critiques by advocating for constant communication and feedback. Including your teammates in the expectation-setting process will help everyone move from compliance to commitment, building confidence and setting the bar higher for greater achievement.  

Applications for Tomorrow

The new Sergeant Major of the Army, CSM Michael Weimer, has stated that modernizing and innovating the professional development of our leaders is as critical as modernizing the tank or developing next-generation squad weapons. Unique and high-performing teams require equally high-performing and ethical leaders who leverage their technical and tactical skills and emotional intelligence to guide their organizations through new challenges. Remaining confident, stewarding key relationships and essential skills, and achieving senior leader and team expectations will firmly plant you as the leader of the future for your high-performing team. Investing in the team, senior leaders, and in yourself will maximize the effectiveness of your tenure and lay the foundation to leave your high-performing organization in an even better place than when you joined the team.   

Terry Lee, PMP, is an Engineer officer currently serving as the Brigade Engineer for The U.S. Army Aviation Brigade (TAAB) at Fort Belvoir, VA. He previously served in the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, TX and is the incoming commander of the 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company.

Chaveso “Chevy” Cook, PhD, is a Lieutenant Colonel currently serving in battalion command at Fort Meade, MD. Chevy also draws on experiences as the Executive Director of the nonprofit Military Mentors, as a training facilitator with the Center for Mentoring Excellence, and as a former instructor at the United States Military Academy.