How to Build Better Teams: 6 Must-Read Books

It starts with group projects in school, then it moves to team sports and finally corporate life: the critical skill of building great teams.

I picked five star books for this list — all books that I loved.

Some of them won’t show up on typical teamwork book lists. Some are stories of great teams in action, or in one case, Into Thin Air, a breakdown of leadership and teamwork and the fatal results.

I’m fascinated by team dynamics and love to learn the principles that make teams work.

(Note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning that at no extra cost to you, a percentage of your purchase goes to support this site.)

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

The Culture Code is similar to Good to Great because it analyzes high performing teams to see what the similar elements are. 

It doesn’t take a statistical approach like Good to Great, but from the viewpoint of an investigative journalist instead. 

Daniel Coyle studied great teams with extraordinary results like Pixar, Google and the San Antonio Spurs. He found that huge budgets and big organizations aren’t the key to success.

Instead, Coyle identifies safety and vulnerability as the critical elements for high performing teams. It’s also important to have freedom to try new things without asking for permission and for every member of the team to have equal say, not just team leaders.

Fearless by Eric Blehm

Navy SEALS are often lauded for superior teamwork. What makes them so effective?

Fearless tells the story of one SEAL from the elite Team Six, Adam Brown.

His journey to becoming a highly decorated SEAL is certainly not conventional. This traces the story from before he began rigorous training to become a SEAL, through the time when he was involved in perilous missions up until his ultimate sacrifice.

Of special note on the subject of teamwork is the way Navy SEALs operate, a process that Daniel Coyle highlights in his book and plays out in Adam Brown’s team.

Turn the Ship Around! by David Marquet

David Marquet tells the engaging story of his own command on a naval submarine. He explains why he chose the leadership style he did and what effect it had– on the intangibles as well as the metrics. He built on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to define his leadership style. Using your team’s strengths as well as their free will and initiative was key.

Retention of personnel was a metric that turned around drastically. Morale is harder to measure, but it, too, was greatly impacted.

Empowerment not only made a huge difference in the way the men saw themselves, but impacted the safety and effectiveness of the whole ship.

“Most empowerment programs fail because they are just that, “programs” or “initiatives” rather than the central principle–the genetic code”, according to Marquet. “We say ‘empowerment’ but do it in a way that is disempowering.”

Top down leadership is so prevalent, so easy to execute initially and so deadly to effective teamwork and outcomes.

“What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.”

“I intend to” became the watchword on the ship, in place of top down dictatorial commands given out by an all-powerful leader. Leadership style matters.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics a U.S. college rowing team competed for the gold. Joe Rantz, an almost accidental member of the team, is an unlikely hero, but you can’t help but root for him.

Tracing the background of some others on the champion rowing team puts you in the boat with the rowers and has you cheering with the crowds on the shore.

I love the real life lessons of leadership and teamwork, and wonder how to transfer these lessons to other teams.

The up close and behind the scenes glimpses of history are instructive and sobering.  So much to glean from this book.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Endurance is a good study in leadership and teamwork. It’s an amazing triumph over the elements, even though the primary mission wasn’t accomplished. The incredible feat was bringing back everyone home alive.

The decisions that had to be made; the feats of survival; the human interaction; the challenges that they faced. These are the elements of the story that draw you in and keep you turning pages.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

In 1996, eight mountain climbers lost their lives while attempting to summit Everest.  Jon Krakauer is a journalist and climber who survived and wrote about it.

To me, one of the most interesting dynamics is the role of leadership and teamwork in summiting as well as personal, individual responsibility.

One of the critical factors in the deaths of those on the mountain in 1996 was the enforcement of the turn around time.

Hall, the team leader, had been so strict about that for other teams, but with this one, he wasn’t.  He didn’t communicate clearly whether the turn around time was one o clock or two clock.  On the actual summit day, people were summiting at 4 and 5 o clock.

No one seemed to know that there was a storm blowing in.

There’s a lot of competing forces at play:  people who spent a lot of money to summit, the commercialization of summiting, magazines that would pay a lot for the story, advertisers looking for heroes.

There’s also different teams that were summiting and the different philosophies of the team leaders.

Should a leader be making decisions that are unquestioned?  Does that actually put his team at greater risk because they don’t follow their own wisdom?  Actually, the genius of Hall’s leadership was to make the decisions ahead of time, not in the heat of the moment.  And the actual breakdown came in not following through with those wise decisions.

The safety net wasn’t there when it needed to be.

The bottom line is, it’s impossible to erase all risk.  That’s one factor that makes the challenge of climbing Everest so attractive:  there is an element of risk involved.  Defying death is part of the victory.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Have you ever wondered why some teams can accomplish incredible feats and others can’t accomplish anything?  What if there were a way to diagnose the problems and solve them?  Now there is.

Five Dysfunctions is a leadership fable.  It is a page-turning quick read fiction, for the very reason a good movie is:  it’s full of conflict.

“The characters in this book ring true, are completely recognizable, and fully-realized. The book itself is well-written, and, I believe, ranks with the best of the genre.” –Jack Covert, co-author with Todd Sattersten of 100 Best Business Books of All Time

Five Dysfunctions identifies the major obstacles that keep a group from functioning as a team.  There are repeatable patterns that keep a team from reaching it’s goals.  By identifying these patterns and working to change them, the team can move forward and accomplish it’s goals.

What are the Five Dysfunctions?

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results.

Lencioni is spot on in his analysis and his resolution.  This book is life-changing.

What great books have you read about teamwork? Let me know in comments.

P.S. Did you miss these book lists?

David Platt’s Something Needs to Change tops the list of 5 Books About Humanity’s Greatest Rescue.

And some of my all-time favorite books are part of 8 Stand Out Novels To Rekindle Your Love for Reading.

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