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The Ideal Team Player for Higher Education

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

The Ideal Team Player for Higher Education

The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many colleges and universities in a constant state of change. A 2020 report from Inside Higher Ed states that college enrollment declined by 2.5 percent in the fall semester, a percentage that equals approximately 400,000 students (St. Amour, 2020). The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 1,300 colleges and universities canceled face-to-face classes or shifted to fully online in 2020 (Smalley, 2021). The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that 10 institutions either closed or were consolidated in the past year (Natow, 2021). For a sector that can be hesitant to change, higher education has been forced to adapt, be flexible, and reassess its operational model.

The events of the past year have demonstrated the need for effective teamwork within colleges and universities. Colleagues have provided much-needed physical and mental support to one another. While much has been lost during the pandemic, one can hope that the spirit of teamwork and self-sacrifice that has been present continues beyond the era of masks and social distancing.

Patrick Lencioni, an extremely insightful author and podcaster in the area of organizational leadership and culture development, has established the framework for teamwork to flourish. One of his most impressive works, The Ideal Team Player (2016), contains many lessons that can be applied to the current state of higher education. The book’s premise is that the perfect team member possesses three essential virtues: they’re hungry, humble, and smart. The book’s fictional story format makes it an engaging read from start to finish. By incorporating the virtues he describes in The Ideal Team Player in organizational life, colleges and universities can position themselves to thrive in the post-pandemic environment. Higher education and its employees can benefit from decisions that are humble, hungry, and smart.

Lencioni believes that being a team player is the most important quality a person can develop. He writes, “The ability to work effectively with others, to add value within the dynamics of a group endeavor, is more critical in today’s fluid world than it has ever been” (p. ix). The first virtue of the ideal teammate is being humble and promoting “we over me.” Being humble is about working on the front lines of an institution and never thinking “I’m above that task or job.” In an era of administrative turnover and loss of continuity, it can be difficult to professionally advance without proclaiming personal successes. But if one promotes the team and the positive attributes of others, administrative leaders will recognize the humble “glue” that holds the team together.

A hungry teammate is self-motivated. Lencioni describes these individuals as working with “a sense of energy, passion, and personal responsibility, taking on whatever they possibly can for the good of the team” (p. 173). One of the most detrimental decisions an organization can make is killing an individual’s hunger. If an employee is hungry, feed them. And don’t stop feeding them until they tell you they are full. Hungry team members provide an opportunity for institutions to be creative and try new ideas. Use their hunger to benefit the organization. Reward them for going beyond the minimum requirements. Incentivize them to try new things. If a hungry individual is not satisfied, they will become complacent and possibly allow their discontent to harm the institution.

The third virtue, being smart, is essentially emotional intelligence. In a team setting, being smart is possessing an intuition that is often learned through education or experience. These individuals have control over their emotions and exercise reason and caution before speaking. One of the best indicators of a teammate’s “smarts” is the willingness to listen rather than talk. Those who possess the smart virtue choose words wisely and spend more time listening than talking. They are able to read the room and know what to say and when to say it—or possibly more importantly, what not to say.

As the fall 2021 semester approaches, consider the three essential virtues of the ideal teammate as an opportunity to reset the teams at your institution. Begin with hungry, humble, and smart leadership to influence institutional change.


The ideal team player model. (2016). https://www.tablegroup.com/download/ideal-team-player-model-and-summary

Lencioni, P. (2016). The ideal team player: How to recognize and cultivate the three essential virtues. Jossey-Bass.

Natow, R. S. (2021, March 1). Why haven’t more colleges closed? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-havent-more-colleges-closed

Smalley, A. (2021, March 22). Higher education responses to coronavirus. National Conference of State Legislatures. https://www.ncsl.org/research/education/higher-education-responses-to-coronavirus-covid-19.aspx

St. Amour, M. (2020, December 17). Few positives in final fall enrollment numbers. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/12/17/final-fall-enrollment-numbers-show-pandemics-full-impact

Anthony Schumacher, PhD, is an assistant professor and chair of ethical leadership at Thomas More University.


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