What Kind of Leader Can Lead a Team of Teams? The 6 Principles of Leading Like a Gardener

By David Livingston

What does it mean to be a Team of Teams, and more importantly, what does it take to lead one? With such a radical operating model, a different approach to leadership is needed. Neither a command-and-control style nor a laisse-faire style of leadership can successfully manage complex organizations. A Team of Teams can only be led by a Gardener.

We need to be a Team of Teams.” I have heard leaders utter that phrase in every industry, from healthcare and life sciences to finance, oil and gas, and technology. I’ve heard it from federal government agencies and elected city officials. I’ve even heard it from church leaders. But what does it mean to be a Team of Teams, and more importantly, what does it take to lead one?

At its core, Team of Teams is an operating model that increases adaptability through a strategic combination of select processes, behavior, and technology based on four key tenets:

  • Trust: teams must develop a culture rooted in trust, built by high levels of benevolence, competence, and reliability, and maintained through transparent communication.
  • Common Purpose: teams across an organization must have a clear "north star,” a collective understanding of where we are going, why we are going there, and how we are going to get there.
  • Shared Consciousness: teams require a regular flow of relevant information to maintain a situational awareness of the environment, what other teams are trying to accomplish, and how they can support those efforts.
  • Empowered Execution: teams must push decision authorities down as far as possible, enabling people closest to the challenge to take rapid action within the bounds of acceptable risk.

When these tenets are lived out day after day, organizations can rapidly adapt to changing conditions while producing a collective resilience that enables their people to maintain health, performance, and engagement despite the constant change.

With such a radical operating model, a different approach to leadership is needed. Neither a command-and-control style nor a laisse-faire style of leadership can successfully manage this type of complex organization. A Team of Teams can only be led by a Gardener.

Lead Like a Gardener - Quote

At the most basic level, the concept of “Leading Like a Gardener” focuses on the imperative that leaders must set the conditions for others to successfully grow and produce fruit. We can, however, expand this metaphor beyond this fundamental truth to identify essential roles a leader has in leading a Team of Teams.


Every organization has habitual behaviors, outdated technology, irrelevant structures, and ineffective processes that may have once been useful but have now become barriers to innovation and creative problem-solving. As time passes, the status quo only becomes more entrenched and harder to uproot. Leaders must courageously challenge conventional thinking and historical precedents. Leaders must constantly put existing behaviors, processes, and technology under the lens of the organization’s common purpose, asking themselves and others, “does this give us the best chance to accomplish our purpose?” Inevitably, tension, frustration, and even fear will accompany this intentional disruption of the status quo, but it will also drive energy, excitement, and a greater focus into the team. Gardeners routinely evaluate current operations and proactively make changes as needed.


Organizations cannot afford to waste talent. It is the leader’s job to place the right people with the right capabilities in the appropriate roles to deliver outcomes. To successfully accomplish this imperative, leaders must both understand what capabilities a situation calls for and what unique value their team members can offer. Acquiring this deep knowledge requires time and intentionality. Only then can leaders plant their team members in the right place to produce results. When done well, it enables leaders to truly deliver on the axiom, “mission first, people always.” Gardeners take time to understand their team members’ unique skill sets and match those capabilities to the requirements of a particular situation.



There is nothing more infuriating than knowing what needs to be done, but not having the time or resources to get it done. Many leaders hide behind the common mantra of “do more with less,” but that only applies when there are inefficiencies in the system that can be removed. At some point, it will inevitably become “do more, get less” as frustration and burnout set in for the team.

Good leaders determine what is essential and what is unnecessary, but great leaders then use their social capital and influence to resource those essential needs. Our data show leaders in some industries struggle to prioritize, in turn leaving employees in the lurch. For instance, the tech industry is notoriously bad at notice and lead time from organizational leadership. Compared to other industries, tech employees are 27% less likely to indicate that they always or very often receive appropriate notice and lead time from managers to accomplish important projects.

Further, tech workers have a low opinion of their leaders’ ability to make wise decisions. They are 30% less likely than other industries to agree that their leadership teams can make clearly defined, responsible decisions within established boundaries.

As belt-tightening and layoffs have hit certain industries, including tech, leaders need to set the stage for the future by improving the processes in which work gets done, starting with timely information sharing so employees can focus on what matters most.

Gardeners ruthlessly prioritize essential tasks and then ensure they are resourced appropriately.


A “need to know” culture is painful for everyone involved. It creates bottlenecks, redundancies, misallocation of resources, and disengagement. Rapidly changing environments require team members at all levels to assess situations quickly and take decisive action, but if barriers exist that hinder communication and obscure line of sight to the organization’s strategy, many of those decisions will be subpar because they did not have the full picture. Holding periodic “All-Hands” conference calls or leaning on the executive leadership team to span silos will not solve this challenge. Dynamic environments require a regular cadence or rhythm of information sharing to enable leaders at all levels to respond to the risks and opportunities that rapidly emerge. Gardeners set up defined processes and effective technological systems to reinforce priorities and share relevant information across the organization, and then regularly adjust the rhythm of meetings as the environment changes.


A leader’s impact is determined by their team’s capability. Wise leaders recognize that investing time and resources to develop their people has a disproportionate value for the organization. Not only does it improve skillsets, generate efficiencies, and reduce errors, but it also improves retention and motivation. But this value does not happen overnight. It requires regular coaching, actionable feedback, difficult conversations, and courageous vulnerability. Annual performance reviews and the occasional public affirmation won’t cut it. Gardeners set aside a significant portion of their time for coaching, sharing feedback, and shaping future careers of their team members in ways that will benefit the individuals and the organization.



For people to grow, they must have the opportunity to fail and learn. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure those failures will not adversely impact the organization. This balance of psychological safety and accountability is challenging and the repercussions of over-indexing on either can be destructive. The key to maintaining this balance is setting up clear boundaries that will allow trial and error within the bounds of acceptable risk. These boundaries, or “simple rules,” must be actionable (they inform someone of what is permissible and what is not), memorable (they will be remembered even in times of stress), and understandable (there is no room for misinterpretation). Gardeners proactively set up clear guardrails and then have the discipline to maintain an “eyes on, hands off” approach, allowing their team members the space to experiment, innovate, and grow.

These leadership behaviors are just a part of the equation when it comes to leading a Team of Teams. You must scale them with the right processes and technology, but if you fail to “Lead Like a Gardener,” no efficient set of processes or advanced technological systems will ever produce the outcomes you need. Model the behavior you need to see in other leaders, and you will be one step closer to becoming a Team of Teams.

Filed under:Leader Behavior

David Livingston

Managing Partner, McChrystal Group Academy

David Livingston leads a team of subject matter experts, learning designers, and dynamic facilitators who develop and deliver custom learning courses and programs that leverage a variety of experiential learning methods to drive individual growth and higher performance for teams and organizations.

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