Building An Elite Team

Article, Insights

By Dr. Joseph Riggio International Leadership Consultant, Coach and Trainer 1. juli 2023

There a fundamental and essential distinction most leaders fail to make, i.e.: GROUPS ARE NOT TEAMS!

Article about building a elite team

This is a critical distinction to begin from if you want to be that rare leader who can and does actually create great team performance.

Most leaders that think they are leading a team are actually leading a group, and usually a loosely held together group at that. The challenge they therefore face is their own delusions that a group can and will achieve the results and outcomes of a real team.


Groups are gatherings of people who come together around a common idea but retain operational and outcome autonomy. In other words, groups share proximity literally in real-time synchronously, or virtually in synchronous or asynchronous time, usually brought together around a common notion of some kind, e.g.: increasing revenue, overcoming addiction, or learning something new together.

Groups provide commonality and community, the experience of “We’re in this together.” to some extent or another. That may foster shared support and/or resources in a way that joins the members of the group together around their common goals or intention. What’s missing from groups that exist in teams is shared accountability and commitment to follow some leadership structure, whether that’s held by an individual or shared. Also, in most groups a commitment to accept responsibility or a degree of personal sacrifice to achieve the outcome is also often missing.


Teams are another animal completely. Teams join individuals together in a way that submerges or surrenders personal autonomy to the team and the outcomes it commits to either partially or fully. In a team there’s an overwhelming commitment to the outcome that exceeds the personal reward to the individuals who comprise the team, even as the team members are rewarded by virtue of being in the team. There’s also a willingness to follow, and often share leadership to achieve the intended outcomes in a way that ignores personal desire to remain autonomous. It’s only when the individuals in a group overcome their desire to remain independent and autonomous that “team” becomes possible.

One of the many factors that allows the team to coalesce into a highly functioning, integrated unit can often be found in their realization that the outcomes they intend are only possible when working as a team. This often means resolving to let go of a personal approach and focus on getting things done in a way that’s preferred to support the individuals on team to come together to bring out the best in everyone. One of the elements that raise the awareness of this necessity may be the awareness of a common enemy in the form of a competitor, opponent, or force in the environment like climate change or sustainability to be dealt with, resisted, or overcome.


Groups and Teams share some commonalities as well, like the desire to realize outcomes and the notion that working collectively will produce better results than attempting to achieve the outcome on one’s own.

The idea that some outcomes are only achievable in collaboration with others from the time of moving the massive stone slabs that built the pyramids or the time scale required to erect a great cathedral or temple has been around for millennia.

To form a group or a team requires a consolidation of a driving concept that resides at the core of the team or group that’s motivating enough to attract and enroll others to it’s realization. Beyond the function of attraction the group or team must also offer engage in some action that’s intended to produce the desired outcome too. When the group or team has a process or mechanism in place to achieve the intended outcome the individuals who comprise it must also be empowered to act. When these three functions are present … ENROLLMENT, ENGAGEMENT, and EMPOWERMENT … the group or team will hold together until something disrupts it or the outcome becomes manifest.

The outcome aimed at by a group differs in an important way from a team as well. In a group an individual may realize their personal outcome from choosing to be a part of the group, while in a team the outcome is only realized by the entire team achieving the outcome. When leaders get this singular unique distinction their thinking about how to organize and build teams shifts in a radical, quantum way.


There are a few inescapable functions required to build an elite team. The first of these functions is that every team member must choose to be on the team and find their own personal reasons that allow them to submerge or sacrifice their own autonomy for the good of the team, their other teammates, and the agreed upon outcomes for the team. It is not possible to build the kind of elite teams that exceed the performance of a group and even mediocre teams by commanding or coercing of the team members. The willingness to follow and lead must come from an intrinsic motivation and cannot be replaced or subsumed by extrinsic motivation.

Regarding extrinsic motivation it’s important to note that this is not the same as an extrinsic force. For instance a mortal enemy that threatens the team or what the team members hold dear can function to raise intrinsic motivation. This could be a dangerous opponent as in wartime, or something like the existential threat of climate change.

When something motivates a team to come together the next critical function is to define what it means to be on the team. The first essential function then becomes the “why” for the team that calls to the individuals who comprise it to become a part of it. The second essential function that follows is the “what” that the team commits to doing to deal with their understanding of the why both personally as well as in regard to the team actions and outcomes.

Once a “why” and a “what” have been accommodated and accurately defined in way that calls out to people causing them to enroll in the cause there must be a rational and process put place that allows them to engage in meaningful action they can perceive has value to realizing the outcomes they’ve committed to themselves and in regard to one another. The function of meaningful action that leads to engagement often takes the form of defined roles within the team like leaders and experts.

Without a clearly stated “when” in the form of an deadline to achieve the outcome most teams will fall apart as they attempt to take and coordinate action without a viable and predetermined timeline. This can take the form of a final outcome and/or milestones for team that are clear and well defined, with understood and measurable metrics of achievement.

When you have the “why, what, how, and when” defined and specified in clearly articulated ways the final component that remains will be the “who” … choosing the right players to participate in relation to the roles you’ve defined, and preventing anyone who would disrupt the dynamic of team cohesion and success from becoming or being part of the team.

The right team players then only require empowerment to act to release the power of elite teamwork and realize the results and outcome that are intended.


The key to building and leading an elite team are becoming the individual that others are motivated to follow and a meaningful outcome to personally commit to on the way to achieving the milestones and outcomes set by you. This means that you must become clear on your own whys, whats, hows, whens, and whos first and foremost, including how each relate to you individually and personally before you can convincingly share these with anyone else.

Then, knowing how to articulate the essential functions that create elite teams to others requires an ability to recognize the distinctions of content and context, and the capability to shape a context powerful enough to contain the content you need to hold to manifest the future you intend. This must done both verbally in the words you speak, as well as non-verbally in terms of the symbols and signals that you send.

This seems to come naturally to some folks, but most people learn how to do this as they grow and mature in their leadership. Those that choose this path and commit to it may themselves become the kind of great leaders that others emulate.

*NOTE: This is part of Joseph Riggio’s ELB: Effective Leadership Behavior series of articles for leaders