But /My/ Team Needs a Leader

“….leadership may be defined as:
the ability to enhance the environment
so that everyone is empowered
to contribute creatively
to solving the problem(s).”

Gerald M. Weinberg

I talk to many managers (and some coaches) who bemoan that their teams can’t function without a leader (in this case “leader” usually means someone who set standards, assigns work, and tracks progress, tells people what to do.  That’s a leader? What ever.)

It is true that some teams need a leader. Occasionally, I run into a software teams whose members were all recent college graduates. Those teams do need guidance. With a team whose members lack real work experience, it might well be folly to create a team charter and then set the team loose on a project that is the life blood of the company. Oh, wait. That’s how some really big tech companies started–and sometimes they weren’t even graduates yet…or in college. So it depends.

When the team isn’t a collection of juniors and still relies on someone else to give day to day direction, make decisions, assign work and track progress, I suspect something else is at play.

Now, I assume that most members of work teams are not utterly dependent people. They are adults.  They make important choices–where to live, when to invest. The enter into financial contracts such as taking out a mortgage. They make short and long term decisions about health and investments. They pay the bills on time. Some have marriages, and raise children.

Navigating life is just as challenging as identifying edge cases for testing, designing a data base or writing an algorithm. So you’d think such people could make decisions at work.

What happens when they get to work that makes them incapable of working without supervision?

Teams exist in relationship to the rest of the organization and their managers. The pattern of behavior on the team is in response to the system, environment and how they have been managed. Without intending to, a manager may create a team acts dependent. It’s a dynamic. Here’s how it works.

A manager–let’s call him Ted–tells a team he wants them to take more responsibility and be more empowered.

This is waaaaay different than the Ted the team has come to know. So the team hesitates.

Ted urges the team to step up, then crosses his arms over his chest and waits. The team hesitates some more. Then the tentatively begin a discussion, all the while looking over their shoulders to see how Ted is reacting (at least metaphorically speaking).

Then one of two things usually happens. In one scenarios, the team comes back with a decisions or takes a course of action that Ted thinks is a bad idea. So he countermands the decision. In the other, Ted, impatient with the time the team is taking to make a decision or act, steps in and tells them what to do.

You can guess what happens next. The team takes Ted at his actions, not his words. They know that he didn’t really want them to be more empowered and responsible. He wants to tell them what to do. In any case, once bitten, twice shy.

The next time Ted tells the team to be empowered (there’s a paradox in telling someone else to be empowered, isn’t there?), the team members sit back and wait. Ted can only take it so long before he steps in again.

And then you have this:

Reinforcing Pattern
Management action reinforces team response. Team action reinforces management response.

It becomes a self-reinforcing pattern.

The good news about dynamics is that they are not immutable; they can be changed.

There are situations that call for one person to lead. Planning meetings, decision meetings, design sessions, customer conversations, and retrospective all benefit from having a leader—where leader is defined as one who provides a process and guides the group to think, learn, and decide together. Some work requires a supporting actor in addition to the one who takes the lead. And some decisions require knowledge that isn’t spread through the team. Then it makes sense to have one leader. But that doesn’t mean it’s a permanent position—far better for the team in the long run if it isn’t.

Teams need leadership and direction. Direction–the problem the team is chartered to solve, comes from management. But leadership comes from within and from all.

Leader-full, not leaderless or leader dominated.

5 Replies to “But /My/ Team Needs a Leader”

  1. Nice post.

    I encountered teams that had been so badly conditioned working in a command and control environment that they felt they needed a leader/manager. They needed her to tell them what to do as well as to take responsibility; Responsibility especially in case of failure.

    Sometimes, unfortunately, one can wonder how some people manage to survive given how they behave at work :(. Empowering people is highly beneficial but sometimes resembles group therapy to wean people of need for this kind of leadership. Nevertheless, I still believe it’s worth every penny.

  2. Why does leadership have to come from a single entity? I’d say that’s an urban myth propagated by movies. I ascribe to the ideas I learned on my road to Eagle Scout, that being that leadership is not about head down running head long into trouble, and it certainly is not about being a tyrant to those who you wish to lead.

    Leadership is about inspiring others to buy in and contribute their unique gifts and talents to the accomplishment of some present activity or goal. Take the typical boy scout troop, each is divided into patrols, similar to project groups. While all patrols eventually will do similar things on their path to Eagle, not all will do them in the same order, or even all of the same ones, given that there are many electives.

    Each Patrol has a Patrol Leader, and assistant Patrol leader voted on by their peers, but the leadership does not end there. Each patrol has a scribe, a record keeper of meetings, dues, and records what’s happened at meetings or outings. They also typically have a quartermaster, responsible for the Patrol’s equipment, to make sure it is maintained. Those are just a couple of examples.

    In Software projects, this is no different, a typical team may have a number of developers, one may be focused on the front end GUI, one on the back end and database, another may deal with the business and data access layers, and then there may be testers as part of the team, and technical writers. Each brings a unique skill set and experience to the project, and all are valuable.

    The question is how do you inspire each of those people to not just take ownership and do their job, but by in and lead as a group? The culture of the unit/division/company in question may play a role here. If it is a culture of blame, good luck getting buy in from the stakeholders who are more concerned in keeping their job until they find something better than perhaps working to make the process better.

    Those are my initial thoughts any ways.

  3. As usual, Esther, I have little to say but “ditto.” I wrote about this a little bit back in 2003, where I pointed out that there seem to be 2 types of behaviors which people both lump under the overloaded word “leader:”


    I’ve tried to distinguish between the two types by using “boss” or “manager” for the first, and “leader” or even “facilitator” for the second, but there still seems to be some cultural/cognitive baggage that some folks carry around that perverts the meaning.

    P.S.: Yay for causal-loop diagrams. One tool against simple, elegant, and WRONG fixes for complex situations. Why are these not taught more?

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