The Ideal Team Player Book Summary

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The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni
How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues: A Leadership Fable

My Thoughts

Insights into building company culture, what makes good team players, and specific tactics for interviewing and hiring. The book has value for any leaders, managers, employees, and especially for anyone involved in hiring and human resources.

The book is written in a narrative format, similar to The New One Minute Manager and is really easy for anyone to listen to and understand the main concepts.

Online resources by the author are available here. I found The Ideal Team Player Interview Guide to be especially helpful.

My Favorite Quotes

  • Humility is the most attractive and central of all virtues.
  • Humility is the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.
  • Smart people tend to know what is happening in a group situation and how to deal with others in the most effective way.
  • Most managers greatly underestimate the impact that a comment or quick gesture of approval has on employees.

Key Questions

  • Instead of asking if they are a hard worker. Ask “How would your colleagues describe your work ethic?”
  • How would your manager describe your relationships with your colleagues?
  • If I were to ask your colleagues to assess your level of humility, what would they say?
  • There are several other excellent interview questions in The Ideal Team Player Interview Guide free PDF.


From the author’s other book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Real teamwork requires these tangible, specific behaviors.

  • Vulnerability-based trust
  • Healthy conflict
  • Active commitment
  • Peer to peer accountability
  • A focus on results

Three Underlying Virtues of the Ideal Team Player

  • Humble (having no ego)
  • Hungry (working really hard)
  • Smart (knowing how to deal with people, emotional intelligence)

General Notes

Being intentional about culture is really important. One of the things we will really value is how people treat one another. Culture will be so important that a person who doesn’t share that attitude will hate working there, it would be really unpleasant for them.

Bring humble, hungry, and smart people together and give them clarity about what needs to be done.

People who don’t fit with the culture will think your company is a little strange.

If nobody in the company is leaving or being asked to leave, then you are probably not truly living these values.

Five Behavioral Manifestations of Teamwork
(From the Five Dysfunctions of a Team)

  • Trust
  • Conflict
  • Commitment
  • Accountability
  • Results

The Model

Too many leaders hire mostly for competency and technical skills, but not for cultural fit.
The three key virtues are humble, hungry, and smart.
Humility is the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.

Defining the Three Virtues

(in the context of teamwork)

Great team players…

  • Lack of excessive ego or concerns about their status.
  • They are quick to point out the contributions of others and slow to seek attention for their own.
  • They share credit.
  • Emphasize team over self.
  • Define success collectively rather than individually.

It is amazing that so many leaders who value teamwork will tolerate people who aren’t humble. They reluctantly hire self-centered people and justify it because those people have desired skills.
Leaders aren’t considering the effect that an arrogant self-centered person has on the overall performance of the team.

Two basic types of people that lack humility.

Type one: the overtly arrogant people who make everything about them.
Easy to identify because they tend to boast and soak up attention.

Type two: people who lack self-confidence but are generous and positive with others.
Tend to discount their own talents and contributions.
Others mistakenly see them as humble but this is not humility.
They are not arrogant, but their lack of understanding of their own worth is also a violation of humility.
Humble people do not see themselves as greater than they are, but neither do they discount their talents and contributions.

Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. -C.S. Lewis.

A person with a disproportionately deflated sense of self-worth often hurts teams, by not advocating enough for their own ideas, or by failing to call attention to problems that they see.

What both of these types have in common is insecurity.
Insecurity makes some people project overconfidence, and others discount their own talents.


Hungry people are always looking for more.

  • More things to do.
  • More to learn.
  • More responsibility to take on.
  • Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder, because they are self-motivated and diligent.
  • They are constantly thinking about the next step and the next opportunity.
  • They loathe the idea that they might be perceived as slackers.

Some types of hunger are not good for a team and are even unhealthy.
In some people, hunger can be directed in a selfish way that is not for the good of the team, but for the individual.
In some people, hunger can be taken to an extreme, where work becomes too important.

The type of hunger intended is the healthy kind.
A manageable and sustainable commitment to doing a job well and going above and beyond when it is truly required.

Undiscerning leaders too often hire unproductive, dispassionate people.
This is because most candidates know how to falsely project a sense of hunger during standard interviews.
As a result, those leaders spend inordinate amounts of time trying to motivate, punish, or dismiss non-hungry team members once they are on board.


Of the three virtues, this one needs the most clarification.
It is not about intellectual capacity.
Smart simply refers to a person’s common sense about people.
The ability to be interpersonally appropriate and aware.
Some might refer to this as emotional intelligence.

  • Smart people tend to know what is happening in a group situation and how to deal with others in the most effective way.
  • They ask good questions.
  • Listen to what others are saying.
  • Stay engaged in conversations intently.
  • Have good judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and understand the impact of their words and actions.
  • They don’t say and do things, or fail to say and do things, without knowing the likely responses of their colleagues.

Keep in mind that being smart doesn’t necessarily imply good intentions.
Smart people can use their talents for good or ill purposes.

The Three Virtues Combined

These virtues are not novel or new.
What makes “humble, hungry, and smart” powerful and unique is not the individual attributes themselves, but rather the required combination of all three.
If even one attribute is missing in a team member, teamwork becomes significantly more difficult, and sometimes not possible.

The History of the Model

The authors asked themselves: Could a person fully practice the five behaviors at the heart of teamwork if he or she did not buy into the idea of being humble, hungry, and smart? The answer was a resounding NO.

A person who is not humble will not be able to be vulnerable and build trust, making them unable to engage in honest conflict and hold others accountable.
They will have a hard time committing to decisions that don’t serve their own interests.

A colleague who lacks hunger will not be willing to engage in uncomfortable conflict, hold peers accountable for their behaviors, or do whatever it takes to achieve results. Choosing instead to take an easier path.

A person who is not smart about people will most likely create unnecessary problems in the entire team-building process. Especially when it comes to engaging in productive conflict and holding people accountable for their behavior.

Any leader who wants to make teamwork a reality, should find and/or develop people who are hungry, humble, and smart.

The Ideal Team Player Model

This model depicts the intersections between humble, hungry, and smart.
The central overlapping piece represents the combined qualities of an ideal team player.

Thanks to Jeremiah Shepherd for use of this graphic.


These are not permanent characteristics embedded in a person’s DNA. Rather, they are developed and maintained through life experiences and personal choices at home and at work.

Team members with these virtues enable teamwork by making it easy for team members to overcome the five dysfunctions of a team.

They will be more likely to…

  1. Be vulnerable and build trust.
  2. Engage in productive but uncomfortable conflict with team members.
  3. Commit to group decisions, even if they initially disagree.
  4. Hold their peers accountable when they see a performance gap that can be addressed.
  5. Put the results of the team ahead of their own needs.

The Categories

0 for 3
Those who lack all three qualities have little chance of being valuable team members.
Fortunately, these people are very easy to identify and rarely make it into teams.

1 for 3
Those who lack two of the three.
A team member who is only humble, hungry, or smart.

Humble Only: The Pawn
Pleasant, kind-hearted, unassuming.
Don’t feel a great need to get things done.
Don’t have the ability to build effective relationships with colleagues.
Pawns don’t make waves so they survive a long time on teams that value harmony and don’t demand performance.

Hungry Only: The Bulldozer
Will be determined to get things done, but with a focus on their own interests and no understanding or concern about how their actions impact others.
Quick destroyers of teams.
They stand out and can be easily identified and removed by leaders that truly value teamwork.
Thrive in organizations that place a premium on production alone.

Smart Only: The Charmer
Entertaining and even likable.
Have little interest in the long-term wellbeing of the team or their colleagues.
Their social skills can sometimes help them survive longer than bulldozers or pawns.

2 for 3
People who are more difficult to identify because their strengths often camouflage their weaknesses.
Lack only one of the three traits.
Have a little higher likelihood of overcoming their challenges and becoming ideal team players.

Humble and Hungry, but not Smart: The Accidental Mess Maker
Genuinely want to serve the team and are not interested in getting a disproportionate amount of attention and credit.
Their lack of understanding of how their words, and actions, are received by others, will lead them to inadvertently create interpersonal problems on the team.
The least dangerous to a team. Have no bad intentions and can usually take corrective feedback.

Humble and Smart, but not Hungry: The Lovable Slacker
Not looking for undeserved attention.
Adept at working with and caring about colleagues.
Do only as much as they are asked.
Rarely seek to take on more work or volunteer for extra assignments.
Have a limited passion for the work the team is doing.
They are generally charming and positive.
Need significant motivation and oversight, making them a drag on the team’s performance. Moreso than the accidental mess makers.

Hungry and Smart, but not Humble: The Skillful Politician
The most dangerous of the three types who lack one of the virtues.
Cleverly ambitious.
Willing to work extremely hard, but only inasmuch as it will benefit them personally.
Very adept at portraying themselves as being humble, making it hard for leaders to identify them and address their destructive behaviors.


  1. Accurately identifying people is not always easy and shouldn’t be done flippantly. Wrongly labeling a team member, even in private or jest, can be damaging.
  2. Don’t assign these labels to colleagues who are truly ideal team players simply because they are relatively stronger in one of the three areas.

3 for 3
Humble, Hungry, Smart: The Ideal Team Player
Possess adequate measures of humility, hunger, and people smarts.
Have little ego when it comes to needing attention or credit for their contributions.
Comfortable sharing their accolades or even occasionally missing out on them.
Work with a sense of energy, passion, and personal responsibility.
They say and do the right things to help teammates feel appreciated, understood, and included.


Four primary applications of the ideal team player model within an organization.

  1. Hiring
  2. Assessing current employees
  3. Developing employees who are lacking in one or more of the virtues
  4. Embedding the model into an organization’s culture

Application 1: Hiring

By doing thorough interviewing and selective reference checking, a manager can hire people with a high degree of confidence that they will be ideal team players.

The Interview Process
The most important part of interviewing for team players is simple knowing which answers and behaviors are the best indicators of humility, hunger, and people smarts and then making the interview as revealing as possible.

The key is sticking to a few concepts. All of which may seem obvious but are too often overlooked.

One: Don’t Be Generic
Too many interviews are so generic that they provide little or no insight into specific attributes.
Instead, they leave interviewers with extremely general assessments of candidates.
Being specific about targeted behaviors and attributes is critical.

Two: Debrief Each Interview as a Team
Each successive interview should be more specific and focused.
Consider group interviews.

Three: Make Interviews Non-traditional
Most interviews are the same stilted, rehearsed, and predictable conversations they were forty years ago.
They are not effective for discerning if the person has the behavior skills and values that match an organization or team.
Try to incorporate interaction with diverse groups of people in everyday situations.
They should be longer than 45 minutes.
Consider getting out of the office with the candidate and see them deal with people in an unstructured environment.
Running an errand at the grocery store or mall for example.
Spending time in the car, see how they behave when not answering a question will help you understand them better.
Look for specific signs that they are humble, hungry, and smart.

Four: Ask Questions More than Once
Asking once often reveals a generically acceptable answer.
Asking again in a different way might get you a different answer.
If you’re not sold on the response, ask a third time in a more specific way, and you will often get a more honest answer.

Five: Ask What Others Would Say
Instead of asking if they are a hard worker. Ask “How would your colleagues describe your work ethic?”
How would your manager describe your relationships with your colleagues?
If I were to ask your colleagues to assess your level of humility, what would they say? Something about having to answer on behalf of another person makes a candidate more honest.

Six: Ask Candidates to do Some Real Work
Give a simulated work project.
Not to get free work, but rather to see how people perform in real-world situations.

Seven: Don’t Ignore Hunches
If you have a doubt, don’t ignore it, keep probing.

Eight: Scare People with Sincerity
Tell them humble, hungry, and smart are requirements for the job.
Explain that if an employee did not share that commitment it would be miserable working there.
Ensure them that if they do fit the humble, hungry, and smart description work will be fantastic for them.

Interview Questions

The author has made The Ideal Team Player Interview Guide available as free PDF. It contains all of the recommended interview questions from the book along with explanations of each question. They also have many other resources related to the book on their website.

Candidate References

View this as an informal tool for helping ensure that you don’t make your team or the candidate miserable.

Put the reference provider at ease.
Explain that the purpose of your call is to see if the candidate would thrive in the job they are interviewing for, not simply to ask if they were a good employee.
Describe the culture of the team the candidate will be joining, and find out whether the reference thinks it is a match.
Ensure the reference that they are not the only person providing input and that everything will be kept confidential and discreet.

Look for Specifics
Spend your time asking about specific behaviors and how the candidate compared to other people the reference has managed or worked with.
See how responses match up with what the candidate said.

Focus on Areas of Doubt
Explore areas you are unsure about with the candidate.
Pay attention to references who do not respond. It is possible they are not enthusiastic about the candidate.
Ask what others would say.

Application 2: Assessing Current Employees

Three outcomes of this evaluation

  1. Confirming that the employee is an ideal team player.
  2. Helping the employee improve and become one.
  3. Deciding to move the employee out.

Humility, hunger, and smarts are not inherent traits. They can be adopted by people with a desire to embrace them.

Manager Assessment

Questions managers can ask themselves about a given employee to determine if whether he or she is humble, hungry, or smart.


  • Does he genuinely compliment or praise teammates without hesitation?
  • Does she easily admit when she makes a mistake?
  • Is he willing to take on lower-level work for the good of the team?
  • Does she gladly share credit for team accomplishments?
  • Does he readily acknowledge his weaknesses?
  • Does she offer and receive apologies graciously?


  • Does he do more than what is required in his own job?
  • Does she have a passion for the mission of the team?
  • Does he feel a sense of personal responsibility for the overall success of the team?
  • Is she willing to contribute to and think about work outside of office hours?
  • Is he willing and eager to take on tedious and challenging tasks whenever necessary?
  • Does she look for opportunities to contribute outside of her area of responsibility?


  • Does he seem to know what teammates are feeling during meetings and interactions?
  • Does she show empathy to others on the team?
  • Does he demonstrate an interest in the lives of teammates?
  • Is she an attentive listener?
  • Is he aware of how his words and actions impact others on the team?
  • Is she good at adjusting her behavior and style to fit the nature of the conversation or relationship?

An ideal team player will merit a yes answer to almost every one of these questions. Remember we are looking for ideal team players, not adequate ones.

Employee Self-Assessment

Asking employees to evaluate themselves is often the most effective way to assess employees.

  • Allows employees to take ownership of their areas of development.
  • Minimizes the possibility of defensiveness and denial.

Give them explicit questions to consider.
Ask employees to access what their teammates would say about them.

See their website for a pdf copy of the employee self-assessment.

Employee self-ranking is a gentler approach to consider as an alternative. The self-ranking form is also available on their website.

Application 3: Developing Employees Who are Lacking in One or More of the Virtues

What is the key to making development work, and what do you do if it doesn’t?

The most important part is the leader’s commitment to constantly reminding the employee if they are not yet doing what is needed.

These are the usual outcomes  when a manager does this consistently:

  1. The employee will finally breakthrough, determined not to keep hearing those reminders.
  2. The employee will finally decide that being humble, hungry, or smart is not their thing. They will decide on their own to leave.
  3. An employee decides they will tolerate the constant reminders from their manager about their issues, and will not leave. In that case, formal action will be necessary.

As a manager, you must constantly, repeatedly, and kindly let the poor performing employee know that they must get better.

Use ideal team players as a stable of coaches.

Recommended Approaches

Developing Humility
The most sensitive of the three virtues.
The source of a lack of humility is always related in some way to insecurity.
All of us are insecure in one way or another.
Find the root cause.
Humility is the most attractive and central of all virtues.

Provide behavioral training.
Employees can make progress simply by acting like they are humble. Practice complimenting others, admitting their mistakes, and taking an interest in colleagues.
Employees can begin to experience the liberation of humility.
They suddenly realize that focusing on others does not detract from their own happiness, but rather adds to it.

Developing Hunger
The least sensitive of the three virtues.
Lack of hunger is also the hardest virtue to change.
It is not merely a matter of increasing output, it is about actually transforming the employee so they can embody the idea of going above and beyond and no longer need extra prodding and reminding.
Hunger may be directed at activities outside of their jobs.
Some people really like lacking hunger, they prefer a sense of detachment, pouring into them is not going to yield significant returns.
Support the ones who want to change.

Passion for the mission and the team.
Employees may struggle because they don’t understand the connection between what they do and the impact it has on others.

Clear Expectations
Set clear expectations and hold them accountable for those expectations.
An employee who deep down wants to be hungry will respond to the clearer expectations with resolve.

Not-so-gentle Reminders
Give immediate and unambiguous feedback.
They need to quickly digest the pain and translate it into a desire to change.
This needs to happen, again and again, perhaps every day for a while.

Praise them publicly when they show improvement and change.

Developing Smarts
Anyone who lacks in this area most likely wants to improve.
Make it clear to everyone involved that deficiency in this area is not about intention.
People lacking in this area do not understand the nuances of interpersonal situations.
If the person is sincerely interested in getting better they will thank you for the training in this area.

Application 4: Embedding the Model Into an Organization’s Culture

The author believes that teamwork is not a virtue but a choice. An intentional, strategic decision.

Ideas for embedding these virtues into the culture.

  • Be explicit and bold
  • Catch and revere
  • Detect and address

Most managers greatly underestimate the impact that a comment or quick gesture of approval has on employees.

Don’t squander opportunities for constructive learning.

My Action Steps After Reading

  • Improved insights into developing company culture.
  • Gained a better understanding of what to look for in hiring, interviewing, and evaluating candidates.
  • Incorporating the suggested interview questions into interviews.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 45th book read in my 2019 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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