The First Team Paradox

Matt Schellhas
5 min readAug 16, 2023
DALL-E — fractal art disappointment

Before we get too far along, I need you to understand the concept of a manager’s First Team. It was introduced in Lencioni’s best-selling Five Dysfunctions of a Team and has become very common leadership advice over the past two decades. The concept itself is simple:

Managers need to prioritize supporting their fellow leaders — their “First Team” — over their own direct reports.

Lencioni argues that when managers put their own reports first, it leads to politics and infighting at the manager level as people put their ego above results. Departments continually fight over resources. The company falters as managers are unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good.

Instead, leaders are challenged to work together first. It is alluring: sacrificing the emotional and social attachments that come with leading people so that the whole company can be successful. Very heroic. Five Dysfunctions wraps it all in a nice, neat fable where the CEO emerges victorious in the end.

The problem is that it’s terrible leadership advice for almost everyone.

The Paradox

Let’s take a look at this from a different perspective. Unless you report to the CEO (or are the CEO), then you are not part of your boss’ First Team. You are on their Second Team. They might not say it, but you feel it: you are never their top priority.

After all, they’ve made it clear that when push comes to shove, you will lose. The First Team comes first. Trusting your manager becomes a risk. Yet in Five Dysfunctions, an Absence of Trust is the first and most fundamental dysfunction. And here we encounter the paradox.

By using the First Team concept to fix a dysfunction with their peer team, managers cause a dysfunction in their reporting team.

The most predictable response is simple denial. “My reports trust me”, they claim. As if they somehow could change human nature. If your first priority is to your peers, people will only trust you with things that don’t conflict with that. Which is of course the second dysfunction, an Absence of Conflict indicated by the sort of artificial harmony that makes it easy for managers to think that everything is cool, when in fact their reports are hyper-aware that they are expendable.

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