Leaders… Do Teams Even Need Them?


The chocolateness of Easter has come and gone. Well done, those of you who did not eat Easter eggs. Also well done, those of you who recognized that small indulgences are good for the soul, and ate the Easter eggs.

This month, I was asked: does every team need a leader?


Conventional wisdom says, “Sure, you need a leader. A team without a leader is a team that gets nothing done.” Conventional wisdom then gazes off wisely into the distance, puts one foot up to lean on a fence and concedes, “Some teams manage to just scrape by without a leader… but every team does better with a leader in place.”

I can’t help questioning the validity of these “always” type statements. Are there times when you don’t need a leader? What functions does a leader provide?

The functions of a leader

A leader provides direction. The leader has a vision for what she wants the group to achieve.

A leader sets the standard. The leader cares. She wants the outcome to be excellent, and she has the interpersonal skills to motivate the rest of the team to meet her standards. The leader’s behaviour influences the team’s culture, morale, motivation.

A leader takes responsibility. Ultimately, the success or failure of the team will rest on the shoulders of the leader. When a decision is required, the leader makes the final call.

A leader is acknowledged by the group. The group has accepted that this person is the leader, either because they've been voted in, assigned by a higher authority (or maybe they are the higher authority), or they have the most passion and skill.*

* In some groups, the leader is the person who is most reliable at answering emails.

Good leaders have a whole list of other attributes, like excellent communication or empowerment of others, but let’s leave that alone for the moment – right now I'm talking about the functions of leadership.

My suspicion is that a cohesive group with a shared vision can get along quite well without a leader. My darker suspicion is that the term “leader” often brings to mind the traditional hierarchical (and usually patriarchal) model. And I've had enough of patriarchy.

Thankfully, there has been a shift away from the old, authoritative style of leadership to a more consultative approach. Instead of dictating terms, today good leaders are inspiring and persuading. They even share leadership roles across a team, each person rising to the occasion as their skills are required, or a problem arises which they find particularly intriguing.

Accidental leadership

It’s easy to slide into the role of leader without intending to, maybe because you've got a background in management or accounting or some other necessary skill; or you’re one of those people who can’t do a job unless you do it properly. You begin to notice that people are looking to you to tell them what to do. A few people are lazily sitting around – you're doing all the work, so they've become passengers. Some of the passengers start fighting with each other for better seats. How do you get off this train?

Luckily, people tend to listen to a leader, and you can use that fact (whether you enjoy it or not) to your advantage. It might be at the AGM, or a team gathering, or via a group email. My suggestion is to talk to the team in a way that returns the functions of leadership to them.

Inspire everyone with the shared vision. If you’re on the team, you probably know what it is. It’s very powerful to have it stated.

Remind people that there is an expectation that everyone contributes. The train doesn't run itself.
This segues neatly into the statement of responsibility. We all have a job to do.

As you are relinquishing leadership, you should acknowledge who the team now answers to. It might be management, or the patients, or the parents, or the clients, or the shareholders… but the team members also answer to each other. People are motivated to do well by other people who they can actually see and speak to.

Be careful not to be too inspiring with your words, or people will just remember “the day that Maire gave that stirring speech and we all realised that she was the leader we needed.”

What you want to achieve is a shared model of leadership, where everyone has the same understanding of the team’s purpose, team members support each other, and people have autonomy over how they achieve the team’s goals.

I leave you with the stunning finding of Project Aristotle. In 2012, Google began researching 180 of their teams, to look for patterns that would point them to the key quality of the most effective teams. The findings were complex, but in a nutshell:

Good teams are ones where the members are nice to each other.

More on that later.