One of my favorite lines from the movie “Rocky” takes place when Paulie (Rocky’s best friend) is having a conversation with Rocky in a meat locker. Paulie is asking Rocky what he sees in Adrian (Paulie’s sister), and gives a straightforward question when he asks, “What’s the attraction?” Here’s the line I love, which I think is incredibly profound: Rocky replies by saying, “I don’t know, she fills gaps, I guess. . . She’s got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.”
I have often used this phrase when providing marriage counseling. When I would meet with a couple, I would use as an illustration a ring that my mother-in-law had, which was made up of separate bands, each with alternating spaces and gemstones, that when put together made one beautiful circular band of gems. Then I would quote the line from Rocky, and explain how, in a marriage relationship, a husband and wife each bring different strengths and weaknesses, and that part of their individual role in building a successful marriage was to fill in each other’s gaps so that they would be better as a couple than either one could be as an individual.
This same idea should be true in teams, but often is not. Rath and Conchie (Strengths-Based Leadership) realized this in their study of teams and leadership, finding that “rarely are people recruited to an executive team because their strengths are the best complement to those of the existing team members.” (2008, p. 21) When they looked for teams that were successful and functioning well, they discovered that, “while each member had his or her own unique strengths, the most cohesive and successful teams possessed broader groupings of strengths.” (p.22) From this they learned that, “although individuals need not be well-rounded, teams should be” (p. 23), and therefore “it serves a team well to have a representation of strengths.” (p. 23)
The truth of the matter is, no one individual leader can be the best at everything that is needed. When one person tries to “do it all,” the result is, as the old saying states, “a jack of all trades but a master of none.” But when a team is assembled that is comprised of differing strengths and abilities, the members of that team fill in the gaps for each other. It makes sense, then, that good leaders “understand what they’re good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.” (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2011, p. 181) These leaders gather teams that offset the leader’s limitations. The result is that the combination of individual strengths makes a better whole.
As a leader, you need to know your limitations and your capabilities. Where you have limitations, or gaps, it is a misuse of your abilities and your time to try to fill in those gaps on your own when you have people around you who can fill in those gaps for you. This means it is part of your responsibility as a leader to be intentional about placing people on your team who will provide the best combination of necessary strengths and skills. It is also your responsibility to be active in developing those strengths and skills in your team members. In the process, when you identify a deficiency in the team that cannot be filled by a current team member, you need to find the right person who can fill in that gap and complete the team. In the end, the best teams are not necessarily a simple combination of the best individuals, but rather the combination of people who fill in all the gaps.
Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., & Senge, P. M. (2011). In Praise of the Incomplete Leader HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 179-196). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.