Leading Teams:  An alternative view

I coach particular leaders as part of the strategy process.  The core of my leadership model comes from the work of the late J Richard Hackman, author of  ‘Leading Teams’.  I like his research-based, rather iconoclastic approach to leading teams.  This is not the traditional understanding of leadership in which influence flows from the fearless leader to the team, rather than upward and laterally between peers. This also differs from traditional theories focussed on the personal characteristics or leadership styles of good leaders.  Here is a brief introduction to his ideas.

Effective Teams

Effective teams maintain a balance between the three criteria for success:

  1. They deliver the service required of the team.
  2. They grow as a team.
  3. They provide an environment in which members can also grow.

But how do leaders achieve these three criteria?

Question:   “How do great leaders create the conditions that promote team effectiveness?”

Answer:   “Any way they can.”

JRH offers the following interpretation.

Leading teams … great leaders …

We tend to credit team leaders with success and failure of a team. This is the ‘leader attribution error’*.  However, leaders are affected as much by the behaviour of subordinates as much they affect their team. Leading teams is a shared activity.  How much the team gets is more important than who gives it.


*The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to attribute our success to our competency, our failure to our environment and others’ success to the environment and their failure to their lack of competency. JRH adapts this concept to leadership.

… create the conditions …

Team performance cannot be guaranteed. But under optimal conditions, when the leader steps back to allow the team to do what it knows best, teams can deliver magic. JRH describes five optimal conditions for leading teams. This is a far more effective model than the usual “cause and effect” models of leadership.

…that promote team effectiveness…

Effective teams maintain a balance between the three criteria for success (delivery, team growth and individual growth). By actively managing the trade-offs between these three components teams:

  • Have more thoughtful planning processes.
  • Are more likely to keep the team’s purpose at the centre of the team dialogue.
  • Allow themselves to be led back into this balance when they lose it.
  • Are less likely to fall victim to the hidden costs accompanying an exclusive focus on a single aspect of performance.

… any way …

Here are ways effective leaders use to establish the conditions for team effectiveness:

  • They establish the legitimacy of their authority.  Not laissez-fair or fully democratic, they communicate unapologetically and without embarrassment, what they want from the team.
  • They focus the team on the immediate task and how the work is linked to the broader purpose of the team.
  • They establish the boundaries of the group as a performing unit so that all members recognise and accept, their individual and shared responsibility for the work to be done.
  • They affirm norms of conduct about how the members are expected to act and react with each other and clients.

Effective leaders use a Team Launch process to align the group as it congregates for the first time.

… they can

Decades of research have failed to identify the core set of leadership traits that make the difference in leading teams.  JRH however suggests four personal qualities that distinguish excellent team leaders. These leaders:

Know some things

They know how to set up the five conditions for leading teams. This can be learnt.

They know how to do some things

They isolate significant themes in team interactions and define feasible, constructive remedial interventions.

They also have a rich and diverse portfolio of execution skills including:

  • Envisioning:  Describing desired end states in a compelling way.
  • Inventing:  Thinking of numerous, non-obvious ways of getting something done.
  • Negotiating:  Securing required resources or assistance from peers and superiors through persistent, constructive engagement.
  • Decision making:  Working under uncertainty.  Collecting information.  Orientating the team against all perspectives.  Identifying options and deciding on a course of action.
  • Teaching:  Helping team members learn through instruction and experience.
  • Relating: Working constructively with others, communicating, listening, confronting, and persuading, particularly when anxiety runs high.
  • Implementing: Getting things done. Listing, prioritising and attending to mundane details. Checking and rechecking for omitted items or people. Following plans through to completion. At a more sophisticated level they implement by constructively and assertively managing power, political relationships, and symbols to get things accomplished in social systems.

These skills in getting things done can be also be learnt but require focussed practice in application.

They have emotional maturity

In addition to understanding and making decisions there are significant emotional anxieties to manage in leading teams. Good leaders know when to inhibit their impulse to decide and act, allowing the team anxiety to escalate until the team reach their own insights, make their own decisions and log their own experience of each other in their work.

Emotional maturity is grown through a personal reflective journey of learning. Coaching can help.

They have courage.

Leaders find themselves operating outside of the comfortable familiar. They work at the edge of what is acceptable, often risking the loss of the esteem of their peers. Leadership can be a lonely journey with scant reward. And this takes courage.

Courage comes from personal reflection, resolve and active testing.

Leading teams:  Conclusion

Although I do not sell myself as a “Leadership Coach”, leadership, like change comes into all of the work I do with clients.  If you would like to find out more about how this works have a look through the page on “How we work”.