Team Leadership

It is fascinating that much of the literature on team performance in recent years has ignored the role of the leader.

Leadership is a structural condition of teams that can have a great influence in performance. However, team leaders are not as important as we think they are, and left alone it is quite probable they do more harm than good. Unless team leaders can influence the system they belong to, they will add little value and will spend most of their time fire-fighting.

If you search “leadership” in Google you will get more than 470,000,000 results. Definitely an important topic in organizations for the last 20 years, and still so much bullshit. You can check it by searching “definition of leadership” in Google, and you will see lots of different definitions ranging from basic command-and-control management to esotericism and spirituality.

Still today, after so many years of research and practice, leadership and team development is full of superstition and beliefs from the industrial era. Many organizations preach about leadership whilst really doing the same stuff than 100 years ago. The world has changed and many companies around the world are stuck in 1920s mindset.

What do we know about team leadership in the 21st century?

  1. Team leadership is a role, a function or an action, not a position
  2. There is no such thing as individual performance in an organization
  3. Team performance depends more on the system than on its leader
  4. Leaders that ignore systemic forces at play will cause more harm than good
  5. The main function of a team leader is working on the system in order to create the conditions for team development
  6. Team leaders might be needed until the team achieves high performance or the team decides to get rid of her or him
  7. Teams that choose their leader outperform those whose leader is appointed
  8. Leadership can be developed
  9. Leadership and management is not the same. Teams need leaders, not managers
  10. All teams need leadership, but not all teams need a leader.

Management & Leadership

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” – Peter Drucker

Management was invented for telling people what to do, not for leading people. Management was invented by Frederick W. Taylor, leadership exists since the dawn of man.

For the purpose of this framework, we are talking about leadership not management. Some teams may need a leader, but surely not a manager. If you need a manager then most probably you don’t have a team but just a bunch of people and it’s quite probable that your organization is not establishing the basic conditions for effective team work.


Managing a workgroup differs from leading a team. Managers, for example, expect – and are expected to – make most decisions and delegate most assignments. By contrast, team leaders seek to develop a team approach to decision making and accountability.

Special section for HR

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

Team Leader is not a position, it is a role or a function. It is a temporary role that only makes sense during the life-span of the team, or until the team doesn’t need it anymore.

I will say otherwise, a Team Leader is a systemic dysfunction. If your organization is not capable of developing high-performing teams then your organization has a problem that no team leader will be able to solve. You might need a team leader at the beginning or perhaps not, but surely not by default.

The most important objective of any Team Leader is making herself dispensable. If you approach your role with this mindset all your actions will be filled with honesty and autenticity. You might do it right or wrong, but your intentions will be honest. In other words, if after 2 years of being nominated Team Lead you are still there, and the team still needs you, you didn’t do your job properly.

All teams need leadership, but not all teams need a leader

“When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. If you want me, but no longer need me then I have to go.” – Nanny McPhee

A team is a complex system that may evolve over time given the proper conditions are put in place. It may begin as a work group and end up as a high-performing team going through different stages of evolution. Depeding on the level of maturity of the team it will require different types of leadership or none.

Over time, given the proper conditions, teams will develop some sort of dynamic or shared leadership, making the existence of a team leader optional.

Shared Leadership

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch

Shared leadership means that different individuals lead the team at different times, depending on the issue at hand and relative to the skills required.

Real teams distinguish themselves by developing over time a shared leadership or dynamic leadership. That is, when different team members take the lead on different functions: technical, functional, problem-solving, decision-taking, interpersonal, teamwork, facilitation, etc.

Shared leadership is a consequence of a shared and compelling purpose and high levels of mutual accountability.

Are leaders born or made?

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

Lots of different kinds of people can be effective team leaders, guiding a team is not a special reserve of a select few.

Most people must develop as team leaders on the job. Their habitual response when tapped as leaders of small groups is to try to be a good manager by making all the decisions and delegating and evaluating all individual responsibilities.

Team leadership demands a different set of attitdes and behaviors that most people can learn. So, if you want leaders make sure you provide sufficient coaching, mentoring and training to help them develop. If you are not planning to support them, you don’t need them either, because they will bring no value to the organization and in most cases they will cause more harm than good.

Structure Influences Behavior

“The basic managerial idea introduced by systems thinking, is that to manage a system effectively, you might focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.” – Russell Ackoff

When placed in the system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results. Different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results. When there are problems it is easy to find someone or something to blame. But, more often than we realize, systems cause their own crises, not external forces or individuals’ mistakes.

People in the business world loves heroes. We lavish praise and promotion on those who achieve visible results. But if something goes wrong, we feel intuitively that somebody must have screwed up.

If literally thousands of players, from enormously diverse backgrounds, all generate the same qualitative behavior patterns, the causes of the behavior must lie beyond the individuals. The causes of the behavior must lie in the structure of the game itself.

The systems perspective tells us that we must look beyond individual mistakes, personalities and events to understand important problems. We must look into the underlying structures which shape individual actions and create the conditions where types of events become likely.

A truly profound insight is the when you begin to see that the system causes its own behavior.

Systemic structure is concerned with the key interrelationships that influence behavior over time. These are not interrelationships between people, but among key variables, such as engineers’ product ideas and technical and managerial know-how in a high-tech company.

It is very important to understand that systemic structure is not just the structure outside the individual. The nature of structure in human systems is subtle because we are part of the structure. This means that we often have the power to alter structures within which we are operating.

However, more often than not, we do not perceive that power. In fact, we usually don’t see structures at play much at all. Rather, we just find ourselves feeling compelled to act in certain ways.

Most people see their job as “managing their position” in isolation from the rest of the system. What is required is to see how their position interacts with the larger system.

So, if leaders cannot change the system they belong to they will be of little use, and most probably they will make matters worse.

Workgroups, Teams and Leadership

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” – Katzenbach and Smith, “The Wisdom of Teams”

In workgroups the responsibility of a joint outcome lies in the leader, in the typical working group, individual roles and responsibilities are the primary focal points for performance results. There is no incremental performance expectation beyond that provided by individuals working within their formal areas of responsibility. The performance contract is between each individual and the leader as opposed to mutual accountability among all team members of the group.

Deeply ingrained bias towards individual accountability and achievement reinforce the behavior patterns that run counter to team requirements. Workgroups must develop a sense of interdependence, mutual trust and accountability to become a team. Yet, most people find it hard to allow their performance to depend on people who are neither their boss nor their subordinates.

All this puts even more pressure in the leader. Because of the leader’s unique role and influence, it is commonly assumed that he or she alone will either make or break the group’s performance.

As a result many leaders are cautious about giving up “solution space” to a team, and they instinctively rely on their own wisdom and control rather than on team approaches. They are not expected to express uncertainty, depend on others for help, and display attitudes of not knowing the answers. Hence, it is difficult for them to be team leaders, which in turn discourages the share “purposing” required to develop common directions and mutual accountability.

On the other hand, real teams are a basic unit of performance, with shared leadership and mutual accountability, and you shouldn’t differentiate individual performance. By assessing and rewarding individual performance we are acting against the foundations of a team and you cannot expect the benefits of team performance.

There is no such thing as individual performance in an organization. Team performance depends more on the system than on its leader. Without a clear understanding of systemic forces at play leaders will do more harm than good.

The Leader Attribution Error

“Our traditional views of leaders – as special people who set the direction, make the key decisions, and energize the troops – are deeply rooted in an individualistic and non-systemic worldview.

Especially in the West, leaders are heroes – great men (and occasionally women) who rise to the fore in times of crises.

Our prevailing leadership myths are still captured by the image of the captain of the cavalry leading the charge to rescue the settlers from the attacking Indians.

So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces and collective learning.

At its heart, the traditional view of leadership is based on assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change, deficits which can be remedied only by a few great leaders. – Peter M. Senge

Our tendency to view leaders as the main influence on how well teams do is understandable because their actions are much more visible than structural or contextual factors that also may be strongly shaping team outcomes. And under some conditions, leaders’ actions really do spell the difference between success and failure. But, research has shown that leader behavior makes the most constructive difference for teams that are reasonably well structured and supported in the first place. If a team is poorly composed, has an ambiguous or unimportant purpose, and operates in an organization that discourages rather than supports teamwork, there is no way that a leader’s hands-on interventions with that team can turn things around.

This framework identifies the structural and contextual conditions that increase the chances that a team will get off on a good track. So that members will actually be able to use the competent coaching and teaching that the best team leaders provide.

The better strategy is to devote the first and greater portion of leader’s energies to establishing conditions that lead naturally to the desired outcomes and the lesser portion to process management.

There is nothing that anyone can do to make a team be great, to ensure its effectiveness. But what can be done is to create and sustain specific conditions that smooth a team’s path toward its objectives. And then, with those conditions in place, leaders can draw on their own special strengths and styles to help their teams use well the full array of organizational resources and supports that are available to them.

How should you pick the Team Leader?

“It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself.” – Latin Proverb

Team members should be consulted about who they want as their leader, they should be involved in the decision process. An experiment comparing the performance of teams where the leaders were appointed with teams that selected their own leaders found that the latter performed better. The explanation seems to have to do with a difference in the attitudes adopted by the two types of leader: those who were appointed were more likely to feel superior and therefore more likely to assert themselves at the expense of team identity.

The implications for teams include that the style of leadership should be negotiated between the leader and the members.

Effective team leaders are always distinguished by their attitude that they really do need the team to succeed. They also must be good at striking the right balance between action and patience in guiding the team to be in control of its destiny and performance. This means avoiding the selection of someone who clearly has the wrong attitude or whom you do not believe has the potential to learn how to be a good team leader.

You must choose someone with enough self-esteem to be able to trust the team getting the work done without much interference and lots of patience. Someone with high Emotional Intelligence who creates a positive environment and builds relationships with team members and the rest of the organization. Someone authentic, without hidden agendas and with integrity. Someone who walks the talk and leads by example.

You need someone who can inspire and influence, rather than manage and control.

If you cannot find this person and the team is already performing, don’t worry about it, probably they don’t need it. In fact, appointing such a leader might be disruptive. If the team is not performing, pick someone with the right attitude and help them develop the other necessary skills to be an effective team leader. If you cannot find anyone, start the team with some help from external coaches or other people from the organization and keep finding one. The result will be much better than imposing the wrong person.

When are team leaders most important?

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max DePree

Team leaders help greatly to form teams and guiding potential teams to real team levels of performance. Team leaders are also critical in generating growth opportunities for members and supporting the team in dealing with its environment. Team leaders are less important on high-performance teams because any member can lead.

So, leaders might be important at the beginning of a team’s life, but if they do their job properly they will become useless as team develops.

How can a team leader positively influence team performance?

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” – Kenneth Blanchard

This could be the subject of a book, and it is not the purpose of this framework. However, I can outline some of the basics.

First of all, a leader needs a great deal of patience, listening, observation and empathy. He or she must start by building relationships and trust. The worst a team leader can do is start telling people what to do, trying to demonstrate that he or she is capable of doing the job.

Then, make sure all enabling conditions are in place, launch the team properly and only afterwards help the team and individuals grow by providing coaching, mentoring and training.


  • Richard Hackman, 2002, “Leading Teams”, Harvard Business School Press, USA
  • Richard Hackman, 2011, “Collaborative Intelligence”, Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA, USA
  • Jacqueline Peters and Catherine Carr, 2013, “High Performance Teams – A Comprehensive System for Leaders and Coaches”, FriesenPress, Canada
  • David Clutterbuck, 2007, “Coaching the Team at Work”, Nicholas Brealey International, London, UK
  • Peter Hawkins, 2012, “Coaching y Liderazgo de Equipos”, Ediciones Granica, Argentina
  • Peter M. Senge, 1990, “The Fifth Discipline”, Doubleday, USA
  • Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, 2003, “The Wisdom of Teams”, Collins Business, USA

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