In 24 years of writing about people, I’ve come to realize that just about everyone is interesting (though sometimes not in the way they might think they are).

Still, only a few have that rare ability to cut straight to the heart of a subject and deliver clear, basic wisdom.

One of my most memorable interview subjects was a big, burly cabbie I met well over a decade ago, after he’d subdued a would-be robber. He did so by reaching into the back seat, grabbing the crook by the throat and pinning him to the seat with his right hand, while using the left to steer his cab back to the dispatch office.

The cabbie summed up his reaction to the robber simply: “I’m a pretty nice guy,” he said, “but I’m not a fanatic about it.”

Patrick Lencioni is not a burly cabbie, but a slightly built and soft-spoken management consultant who writes bestselling business books.

His words struck me with a similar clarity to the cabbie’s when he gave a talk, refreshingly free of buzzwords and biz-speak, at a recent Communitech Level Up breakfast.

Lencioni was talking about five behaviours people need to master in order to work effectively as a team, how the foremost of these behaviours is trust, and how trust can only be built among people who are humble and self-possessed enough to make themselves vulnerable to each other.

He boiled it down to a simple idea: “Are the people on my team capable of acknowledging what they don’t know?”

It was the kind of question that resonates long after it’s uttered, and I’m sure it left the audience of executives much to think about as they returned to their small and mid-sized companies.

Intrigued by the idea of trust, humility and vulnerability as keys to business success, I caught up with Lencioni for this quick interview after his talk:

Q – Tell me about the most dysfunctional team you’ve ever encountered.

A – The most dysfunctional team I ever encountered was probably at a law firm. (My approach) was just antithetical to them.

We could make no progress because there was just such a fundamental lack of trust, and they were kind of operating on that principle. That was something unique about that firm, but also something that’s a big challenge in law firms.

I also worked with a company that had a bunch of rock-star executives who were all very Type-A.

Ultimately it was the leader, who herself was a very Type-A leader, who was so committed to building the team.

They were in the midst of a horrible economic time in a tough industry, and they actually held together longer than anybody else and made something of their company.

Their dysfunction was the fact that they’d hired all these people, all of whom wanted to be CEOs and didn’t want to be team players, and it took her a long time to earn their respect. But, she really stuck to this; she was probably the best client we ever had in terms of just committing to this.

Q – How did you approach the job of helping such a messed-up team?

A – The key to helping them was us being completely sold out for what we believed, and we were completely naked and let them think we were foolish at times.

We just said, ‘Listen, this is what you guys need,’ but they were still skeptical of whether this mattered. We just hung in there and kept telling them the truth, for their sake, knowing that at any moment they could fire us.

They kept us around for a long time because they knew there was something there, and ultimately, they came to see it as one of their biggest competitive advantages.

For us, we had to be okay with not being agreed with all the time, and  with jeopardizing the relationship for telling them the truth.

Ultimately, that’s what they valued.

Q – Much of your message boils down to humility, and people’s ability or inability to be vulnerable. Why is that?

A – At the heart of all of this is humility, and personal security. Being insecure is at the heart of all of this.

If you say, ‘What’s the one thing you want in any CEO or leader or team member,’ it’s a sense of personal security and humility; they are capable of admitting when they’re wrong and they’re not afraid to fail.

They’re not afraid to be rejected, either. They’re very comfortable in their own skin, and their life does not hinge on other people’s opinion of them, and yet they care about other people inherently.

When people say ‘What’s the one thing you want in a leader’, I want somebody who wants to achieve something, but is ultimately humble; it’s not about them.

Humility is very attractive, but you can’t fake it.

Q – What can CEOs do right now to gauge the health of their organizations?

A – We actually have a free assessment online, where you can ask yourself some questions and it will tell you.

The other thing they can do is just look at whether or not people come to work psyched to be there, and whether good people are leaving. You don’t want to wait until that happens, but that’s a sign.

Do your best people want to be there?

Do bad people feel the pressure to leave or to improve?

Are your meetings appropriately uncomfortable because people mix it up and challenge one another, or are they boring, and people just want to get out of there and say the right thing?

Those are some tell-tale signs, but the best way to know that is to answer a few questions on this assessment we have on our website, that allows people to go, ‘Okay, this is my issue’ or ‘these are my strengths’ as an organization.

Q – How did you get so good at this stuff?

A – It’s like anything else; (you’ll do well) if you love it and you’re passionate about it, which I was, since I was a little kid.

I didn’t know what it was, but I remember, even at times when I was a little kid, thinking, ‘This is interesting, how people work together.’

Then I got my first job and I was totally distracted. I was supposed to be a strategic management consultant, but I was totally distracted by the organizational-health kind of things.

So, I had the passion for it, and then I just did it. I made mistakes and tried it and kept doing it, and was self-taught, meaning non-academically, and I wasn’t afraid to push for it.

I’m just very blessed that I get to do something I’m passionate about and that there’s a need for.

You can get all the degrees you want, but if you’re not passionate about something, you’re probably not going to be great at it.

Similarly, you don’t have to have any degree; if you’re passionate about something, you do it for a long period of time and you really want to improve, you’re going to be great at it.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.