Leadership and Group Projects

Few students groups that are assigned to work together in class take time at the beginning of their relationship to talk about what they want and the values that they bring to the group.  As a result, the teams discover (often too late) that members are pulling in different directions.  They begin to care more about protecting themselves than they do about caring for one another.  For example, you know that you are being protective of yourself when you find yourself saying, “I can’t count on my teammates.  If I want a good grade, I’ll just have to do the whole project myself.”

This dysfunction is exhibited in some CEE300 student teams every year.  It is a failure of leadership.

Leaders must be vulnerable.

Because leadership is an explicit learning objective in CEE300 – Engineering Business Practices, it behooves us to understand this failure and how to overcome it.  In this video, former NBA Coach Phil Jackson shares some of his insights on the leadership style that resulted in 11 championships over his multi-decade career:

Note that Jackson always prioritizes the well-being of his players over the “scoreboard.”  That is, winning championships (or earning A grades) does not result from focus on the score, but from focus on the well being of the players.

Leaders accept responsibility for the emotional well-being of the team.

One of the things that Jackson is famous for is establishing a shared sense of values (called culture) at the beginning of the season.  For example, he might gather his team before the season and ask, “What is our goal?”

If they all want to win the Championship, then they have shared vision towards which they can work.  That is, they are aligned with the same goal.

But Jackson goes further.  He will also ask, “What values do we bring to our team that will help us accomplish this goal?”

Typically, these values are things like, hard work, arriving on time, teamwork, preparation, communication and support for each other.  No one starts a new team venture and claims that the values they bring are selfishness, pettiness, gossip, and criticism.

However, the team inevitably goes astray from the values that they construct at the beginning.  That’s when Jackson can return to the statements they all agreed upon together and ask, “Have these values changed?  Do we want something different now than we did before?”

Engineering students can adopt similar leadership techniques in their own groups.  That is, they can share their alignment with another.  They can identify specific tasks that accord with the levels of commitment each student is capable of making to the team.  And they can hold themselves accountable when their behaviors are inconsistent with the values that they claimed to embrace at the outside.

Leaders build trust among teammates.

To be a leader in CEE300 requires at least these three things: 1) personal vulnerability, 2) responsibility for the well-being of others, and 3) trustworthiness.

2 thoughts on “Leadership and Group Projects

  1. Ken

    I feel as though the type of leadership and teamwork this blog is referring to can only be accomplished by groups trying to achieve the same goals (i.e. Military, sports teams, firemen, police etc.). Due to the diversity contained in the classroom, this type of behavior, “I have to do it myself or I won’t get a good grade” will forever be observed. One student might be ok with recieving a B or C while another student in the group might only feel accomplished by achieving an A. From day one in the academic career (kindergarten through college), the grade a student recieves is based on individule effort. That view point won’t change for one single class. So to label it a dysfunction is, in my opinion, unfair and moot.

    1. Thomas P Seager Post author

      The goal in a CEE300 classroom is not to get a good grade — or any kind of grade. There’s no point trying to train civil engineers to get good grades, because the world doesn’t need people to earn high academic marks.

      When engineers are working in teams, they’re working towards a higher purpose: to solve a problem our bring something new into the world.

      As you have described your approach to class, where everyone is self-concerned about the way their experience will be represented on their transcript, I agree that the concept of teamwork is moot. However, leadership is not. The leader is the person who is able to steer those self-concerned people towards a collective, pro-social goal!


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