05 March 2019

Defeated by the Tuckman Loop

In 2016 I made a series of leadership mistakes that could have been avoided if I had seen the warning signs, kept the ego in check and exercised some humility. The Storming stage was stuck on repeat and the rest of the team was walking on eggshells. The experience was valuable to my personal leadership journey and gives me a great example when I am coaching leaders, but there was a heavy price to pay.

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman published a theory called ‘Tuckman’s stages of group development’. The stages of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing are well known, and by my experience generally accurate. At the start of the training year in 2016, the Forming Stage between our new leadership team was comfortable and familiar, and as we started to get to know each there didn’t appear to be any issues on the horizon. As we prepared for the first deployment to the field for the year the Line of Departure for Storming was about to be crossed and the conditions had been set for a relationship breakdown.

In hindsight, these conditions for the relationship to get off to a bad start were set before we even began as we had both come from very different backgrounds and experiences. This is not uncommon, but I failed to recognise and discuss our differences of opinions and overall training methodologies early in the Forming Stage. Within this new leadership team, we were speaking a different language and adapting to a new lexicon.  As we started to have minor disagreements I pushed on, keeping my ego intact but not addressing the growing animosity amongst the team. Once we were on this downward spiral I became further entrenched, oblivious to the effect it was having on the rest of the team and my own performance. Along the way I broke almost all of my own leadership principles as being right seemed more important than anything else.

The realisation of my mistakes came when I observed one of the Junior Leaders interacting with a member of the leadership team using negative language that he had picked up from myself, proving once again that soldiers will become a ‘direct reflection’ of their leaders. In that instant, I started to take stock of the mistakes that I had made but it was too late. A Regimental manning change took effect before I could right the wrongs, and the ego that I was trying to protect all along was in tatters as I realised that I could have avoided these issues with a little humility. As I reflect on what went wrong and how I will not make this mistake again, the following came to mind:

  1. When forming a new leadership team give it time to go through the stages of group development. Be open to new ways of thinking and see it as an opportunity to refine your own ideas.
  2. Exploit the honesty that drives meaningful after-action reviews and adapt it to personal reflection. Don’t take counsel from your trusted group that has also drunk the cool-aid and will tell what you want to hear. Seek out those that will challenge your ideas and personal behaviour and will give honest feedback to personal performance.
  3. “You don’t have to like him, you just have to work with him”. This advice is often given but not rarely helpful in the long run. Hard conversations early are the answer to this problem.
  4. It’s not about you and you aren’t as good as you think you are. In an organisation of large egos, it is challenging to demonstrate humility and seek criticism. At the point that you no longer accept alternate points of view or experiences, you are tapping out of the self-development journey.

Two years have gone by I still count this relationship breakdown as the worst leadership mistake that I have made so far. It came at a time when I started to believe the hype and stopped reflecting on my own behaviour. If culture is King, then humility is Queen, and the Queen is the most versatile piece on the board. Check the ego and have that honest conversation now.

Recommended Listening

I am currently listening to a New Podcast titled, Worklife, With Adam Grant. The episode titled Dear Billionaire, I give you a D Minus, is excellent and explores how teams that focus on honest feedback create an environment of constant reflection and improvement.


Written by : Ben Horton