If you are in a leadership position, it’s important that you know who is on your Primary Team and who is on your Secondary Team. It may not be what you think. The people who report to you — the ones you lead every day, who rely on you for direction and inspiration – are on your Secondary Team. Your Primary Team is made up of the colleagues with whom you lead your organization, business unit, or department — the people who share responsibility for defining the vision and setting the strategies that will drive success. This isn’t a loyalty issue, it’s a leadership issue. It’s not about hierarchy, it’s about how you handle yourself. Here are a couple of analogies.
Ideally, the parents of young children function as joint members of the Primary Team. Even though they play with their children — build tents out of blankets, hold tea parties for stuffed animals, and just get silly sometimes — they understand their interdependent roles. Good parents know that someone must announce bedtime, enforce hygiene rituals, and make sure homework is completed. It’s their job. When parents don’t present a unified front, but try to curry favor with their kids by blaming the stricter parent, the consequences are never good.
Likewise, if you are the manager of a baseball team, you need to coach your players to deliver their personal best in a way that benefits the entire team. That’s how championships are won. As the manager, it’s essential that your team respects you and your decisions. If they like you, that’s a bonus. But the players are always your Secondary Team. The Primary Team is the front office — the General Manager, Owner and board. If, as the team manager, you complain about “those guys” in the front office, you’re undermining confidence in the organization. Your players need to see leadership, not dissension.
That’s how it works in any other enterprise. Most of us in leadership positions have had to work our way up through the ranks; we naturally have empathy for those who report to us. The temptation, however, especially when building a new group, is to try to win the confidence of our team by filling them in on everything that happens at a leadership level — with the Primary team. Even things that should remain private, like disagreements about goals and strategies.
Spreading rancor, or simply playing the “us vs. them” angle, ultimately erodes faith in the vision, introduces doubt about the strategy to win, and undercuts the foundation of trust you need from both teams. This inevitably leads to instability as roles and abilities are questioned. The result is two demoralized teams — Primary and Secondary — and damaged trust all the way around.
If you ever feel tempted to complain to your direct reports in this way, it’s probably a sign that you need to take the discussion to your Primary team and resolve some issues. Get clarity around the desired outcomes — the things that really matter. Your Secondary Team doesn’t need the blow-by-blow. They just need to know where you want to go, the wins the team needs to make along the way, and what it will look like when they arrive there, together. That’s leadership.