“….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:
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.