Stay on Your Own Horse: Why Self-Knowledge is the Key to Great Leadership

In project management, one size does not fit all!

A number of years ago, I was leading a high-performing team at work. Each team member brought a unique set of skills and talents to the group, and we worked together with balance, efficiency, and harmony.

Something came up that required me to leave the team for several weeks, and I passed the leadership baton to my deputy project manager with complete faith that everything would continue humming along as usual in my brief absence.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I returned after a few weeks to find the team mired in conflict—almost at war. How could things have gone so wrong so quickly?

I have a theory.

During this period when I was leading the team, I was simultaneously studying Belbin Team Roles Theory as part of my Master’s degree studies. This theory is based on the work of Dr. Meredith Belbin, who identified nine distinct team roles, each of which represents “a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way."

The nine roles are broken into three groups: action-oriented roles, people-oriented roles, and thought-oriented roles. As you can imagine, a healthy and effective team has a good balance of people in each of the categories.

As part of my studies, I had my work team members take the Belbin Assessment. I found out what my work team’s roles were under the Belbin Team Roles Theory, but they didn’t. (I was still studying the theory, but not yet ready to share or apply it in my daily work, so I kept the results to myself—in hindsight, not the best decision.)

I learned that I contribute predominantly in the Shaper role (challenging teams to improve), and secondarily as a Coordinator (one who acts as a chairperson)—both of which give me a distinct management style. The rest of our team represented a happy balance of the other roles, and we performed very well.

When I stepped away and asked my deputy project manager to take over leadership of the team, he decided to adopt my style of approach. Sounds reasonable, right? Sure. Except it didn’t work.

In adopting my leadership style, he attempted to perform the Shaper and Coordinator roles—mistakenly believing that because I, the absent team leader, performed those roles, that they were intrinsic to being a leader.

But those were my natural strengths, not his. His strongest Belbin roles were Monitor-Evaluator (analyzing options) and Implementer (putting ideas into action). If he had chosen to continue exercising his own strengths, instead of trying to adopt mine, I have a hunch the team would have rallied around him.

Instead, he came across as inauthentic and forced, and the team reacted with resistance to what seemed like an interloper jumping on the leader’s horse and grabbing the reins. If he had stayed on his own horse and simply guided it into the leadership position, the team would have followed him.

One of the team members described the situation like this: “He thinks he’s you. Well he isn’t, and I am not going to go along with that.” My deputy was no less frustrated. “I told them what to do, just like you do,” he told me, “but they ignored me and told me where to go!”

After removing some of the heat from the conflict, we all managed to calm the situation down, and the team, thankfully, resumed their previous high performance. But there were lingering consequences (the deputy never repaired the damage to his relationship with two other team members.)

 Now, after more than 30 years as a project manager in the nuclear industry (not exactly a low-stakes field) and ongoing work training teams in Belbin Team Roles Theory, I know that if the entire team had gone through Belbin training, a number of things would have turned out differently.

First, my deputy would have had the confidence to lead the team using his Team Role strengths instead of simply copying my leadership style.

Second, if he had slipped and stepped out of his natural roles, the other team members would have had the tools to recognize that, and the language to talk about it productively.

This was a great lesson learned for me, and it illustrates the importance having a language we can use to articulate our own strongest roles in any given team, and to identify and empathize with the others.

Most importantly: It’s always better to play to your own strengths and remain true to your own authentic, natural, instinctive style.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we don’t all have room for improvement, or can’t learn how to maximize our own intuitive style for the best possible results. We can and we should—and Belbin can help with that too. But first you need to know what horse you’re on.

Leadership isn’t always about having the most impressive steed, or the one that the leader before you happened to leave at the front of the pack. It’s about knowing your own horse so thoroughly that you have total mastery over it and can navigate it over any terrain, or from within any position on a team, while simultaneously putting others in the strongest possible position for success.

Belbin Team Roles Theory gives team members the ability to do just that. Over the course of my career, I’ve watched it transform groups that are getting tepid results (or are downright dysfunctional) into thriving, balanced, effective teams that exceed everyone’s expectations. I’d welcome the opportunity to help your team do the same.

Got a team or organization that’s ready to go to the next level of cohesion, balance, and performance? Interested in learning more about Belbin Team Roles, the specific makeup and potential of your team, and mapping a path to its ideal structure? Tell me more here.


Currently Mike is a consultant with Smartt Strategies and previously a design engineer and project manager in the nuclear industry for 40 years. He has worked in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France and the Unites States project managing multi-billion dollar projects. He graduated from the Liverpool’s John Moores University (formerly Liverpool Polytechnic) with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics, and earned a Master of Science in Engineering Project Management from Lancaster University. He is a Chartered Engineer with the Engineering Council in the United Kingdom and a corporate member of the Institute of Electrical Technology.

Mike Lynch