Tag Archive for Teams

What is Team Leadership?

Peter Northouse defines a team as “a specific type of group composed of members who are interdependent, who share common goals, and who must coordinate their activities to accomplish these goals.” (2013, p. 287) He goes on to say that good teams fulfill two primary functions, one related to tasks, and the other related to people.  He succinctly says, “Two critical functions of team effectiveness are . . . performance (task accomplishment) and development (maintenance of team),” (p. 299)  In this type of leadership, the role of the leader is team oversight; specifically, to help the team accomplish its goals by monitoring, diagnosing, and acting.  This often involves distributed leadership, which is the distribution of leadership roles and responsibilities to the most appropriate team member at any given time.

Team Leadership Theory is not really about how a team leads, but rather how a leader leads a team.  Hill’s Model for Team Leadership provides a good explanation of this theory.  It begins with the leader’s mental model, which involves three steps in navigating a problem in the function of the team:  identifying the problem, understanding the context, and determining the possibilities.  The model then progresses to the decisions that a leader must make regarding the problem, whether or how to intervene and improve team function.  He must decide whether to simply monitor the situation, or to take action.  He must determine if the issue is internal – in which case he will need to diagnose or repair – or external – in which case he will need to forecast or prevent.  If he must intervene, he must determine if the intervention is for task or relational needs (or for environmental issues), which will in turn effect the actions he must take.

The basic idea is that it is the leader’s responsibility to monitor the team and its activity to ensure that it is functioning well, and if – or when – it is not, to determine what steps to take to address the issue and get the team back on track.  He must be able to see and understand the problem that exists in the team (and whether it is related to task, people, or environment) and determine what is the most appropriate response or corrective action.  Given the value of teams in an organization (which is another discussion), this is an important skill set for leaders.  An understanding of Team Leadership Theory has helped me to become more effective at leading my teams, and I would encourage you to grow in this area as well.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.



Quotable (Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice)

“Effective team performance begins with the leader’s mental model of the situation.  This mental model reflects not only the components of the problem confronting the team, but also the environmental and organizational contingencies that define the larger context of team action, . . . and what solutions are possible in this context.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 290)

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.


Put the Right People Where They Fit

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Great by Choice, famously said that an effective leader gets the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. (2011; 2001)  Usually, this concept is only applied to the general hiring process in organizations, as HR departments and hiring managers make every effort to employ the right people in the company.  However, I believe it is just as important to take it to a micro-level, and apply the same principles to the formation of your team.  When it comes to your team, those principles are, quite simply:  get the right people, and put the right people in the right place.

It begins by getting the right people on your team, and this happens in two ways.  First, identify those people that need to be on your team, and get them on board.  A good leader will learn to understand his personal strengths and abilities, as well as his own “gaps,” knowing that “without an awareness of your strengths, it’s almost impossible for you to lead effectively.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 10)  He also needs to understand the strengths of those around him, especially where those strengths are different than his.  With those pieces of information, an effective leader is intentional about identifying and placing people on his team that will provide a full range of strengths and abilities.  Where leaders make a mistake is  in choosing people without consideration of how they fit, when people are not “recruited to [the] executive team because their strengths are the best complement to those of the existing team members.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 21)

The second piece of getting the right people on your team is to remove the wrong people from the team.  These wrong fits to the team may be immediately evident, or may become apparent over time.  “Effective executives know this and check up (six to nine months later) on the results of their people decisions.  If they find that a decision has not had the desired results, they don’t conclude that the person has not performed.  They conclude, instead, that they themselves made a mistake.”  (Drucker, 2011, p. 30) When it becomes clear that someone is then not a good fit, it is time to take them off the team, but a truly outstanding leader will go one step further.  Because he has learned and understood that team member and his or her strengths and weaknesses (at least, enough to know that they do not fit on the team), a great leader will not simply usher that person off the bus, but will help get him on the right bus.  He will help that person move to the place where he best fits, whether that be within the organization, or perhaps even in some other organization.

With the right people on your team, the next step is to make sure that they are in the right place on the team, functioning according to the gifts they bring to the group.  There are a variety of personality and strengths assessments (Myers-Briggs, DISC, StrengthsFinder, etc.), but the underlying premise of all of them as that there are different personality types and strengths (that makes sense, doesn’t it?).  The application of this premise is that those different personality types and strengths will function best in different roles.  Some may be better at analyzing and mapping, others at motivating, or administrating, or planning, or connecting, or any number of other skill sets.  Part of the purpose of having a full range of strengths on the team is so that the leader can assign tasks and responsibilities based on those strengths, and so that, in turn, the team members are each operating at their highest capability, enjoyment, and fulfillment.  Often, when it becomes evident that the team is not functioning well, it is because the leader “didn’t put the right people on the job.” (Drucker, 2011, p. 31)

The most successful – and, incidentally, the most enjoyable – teams on which I have participated have been those that have had a balanced combination of strengths and abilities; so much so, that when a team member left, I became very intentional about searching for a replacement that filled in the right gaps for those that remained.  I have learned my strengths, and I know that I will do best when I can fully operate within those abilities; therefore I know I need to seek out people with abilities that will complement mine.  When that happens, we perform well, we work together well, and we accomplish much.

Collins, J. (2011). Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 115-136). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap–and others don’t. New York: Harper Business.

Drucker, P. F. (2011). What makes an Effective Executive HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 23-36). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.


Ezra’s Model of Team Leadership

As I have studied the book of Ezra (and I’m not sure why I did, but I think it had something to do with being struck by a particular verse – Ezra 7:10 – which in turn piqued my interest and led to a lengthy study) I have learned many lessons that were personally valuable for my spiritual growth.  Beyond that, though, I have also identified a significant number of lessons that I thought were particularly applicable to leadership, and especially to Christian leadership.  One of those leadership lessons that struck me involved Ezra’s approach to team leadership.

I think it helps to understand the entire context:  The book of Ezra describes some of the events surrounding two stages of a return to Jerusalem by the Israelites.  The first stage involved a group returning in order to rebuild the temple, and the second (nearly 60 years later) involved a smaller group that returned in order to rebuild the spiritual condition of the people.  Ezra – considered to be the author of the whole book – is actually only specifically involved in the return of the second group, described in chapters 7 through 10.  More pointedly, chapters 7 and 8 describe the preparation of Ezra for that return, the assembling of his team, and the carrying out of the mission given to his team.  In application to lessons on team leadership, this points to the three components of a team that are evident in these chapters: the leader of the team, the team, and leadership of the team.

Chapter 7 introduces us to the leader of the team, Ezra, and clearly presents his preparation for leadership in verse 10, which says, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (The Holy Bible:  New King James Version, 1979) This verse points out a sequential, three-step process of development that I believe is essential for the development of any individual Christian leader.  Step one is “learn.” In a general sense, any leader of a team needs to learn the history and context related to the organization and the strengths and characteristics of the team members, and needs to understand the issues to be faced.  But at a deeper (and more important) spiritual level, the Christian must learn to know God.  He needs regular, intimate time with God, because this is what gives him the capability to lead.  Step two is “live.” This means that the actions of the leader must reflect what he has learned with authenticity.  He must “walk the talk,” demonstrating consistency between values and actions, and this is what gives him the credibility to lead.  It is only after growing deep in his relationship with God, and then applying and reflecting God’s truth in his life, that he can move on to step three, which is to lead by teaching, guiding, and showing others the way.

Chapter 8 introduces us to the team, specifically in verses 15 through 18. Here we see that Ezra, before beginning any tasks or moving forward, took time to look at the people around him and gather his team together.  The first thing he noticed is what he was missing on his team: spiritual leaders (“I looked among the people and the priests, and found none of the sons of Levi there.”) The rest of the team was made up of two different groups: 1) those he described as “leaders,” the ones who had previously demonstrated effective leadership ability and experience, and 2) those he described as “men of understanding,” or those with a gift of insight and understanding who would be advisors and counselors (the term “understanding” is the same one used to describe the wisdom and discernment granted to Solomon in I Kings 3:9-12).  With these two segments of the team in place, Ezra selected a spiritual leader, and specifically one with discretion, before setting up the plan for the mission.  Ezra knew that he had to have, as Peter Northouse explains in Leadership: Theory and Practice (2013), the right number and mix to have an effective team.  Therefore he was very intentional about putting together a combination of people who would meet the specific needs of the mission, reflecting the idea that “the most cohesive and successful teams possess broader groupings of strengths.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 22)  He didn’t move forward until he had the right team in place, a team that was willing to submit to God and follow Ezra’s leadership. In the words of Jim Collins, he “got the right people on the bus, moved the wrong people off, ushered the right people to the right seats – and then [he] figured out where to drive it.” (2011, p. 124)

This takes us to the final piece of this puzzle: leadership of the team, which is presented in chapter 8, verses 21 through 31. Ezra had prepared himself and assembled the right people for his team, and now they had a mission to accomplish.  While the task was to be carried out by the team, not an individual, he as the leader of this team knew it was his responsibility to make sure they effectively accomplished the goal, and there were four components that he incorporated into that leadership.  First, he set the example – specifically, a spiritual example – in attitude and humility, recognizing God’s sovereignty in their task (vv. 21-23).  Then he assigned responsibility, by dividing up the resources that were to be carried by his team, and giving them their instructions (vv. 24-30).  Third, he provided motivation, reminded them of who they were and of the magnitude of their task (v. 28).  Finally, he maintained unity in the group, as they undertook the mission together (v. 31).

As a Christian leader, these are significant and important lessons for your leadership development.  First and foremost, intentionally recognize and submit to God’s sovereign activity, purpose, and process in your life, in the team, and in the task.  Make sure – and this one is absolutely critical – you are aggressively pursuing an intimate relationship with God, and living a life consistent with God’s truth.  Intentionally gather the right people around you, including those with leadership ability and those with wisdom, but especially include spiritual leaders who are humble and committed to God.  Then, and only then, lead your team.

Collins, J. (2011). Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 115-136). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

The Holy Bible:  New King James Version. (1979). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.


Quotable (Tom Rath & Barry Conchie, Strengths-Based Leadership)

“Effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and build on each person’s strengths. . . . While each member has his or her own unique strengths, the most cohesive and successful teams possess broader groupings of strengths.”  (Rath & Conchie, 2008, pp. 21-22)

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.


Fill in the Gaps

One of my favorite lines from the movie “Rocky” takes place when Paulie (Rocky’s best friend) is having a conversation with Rocky in a meat locker.  Paulie is asking Rocky what he sees in Adrian (Paulie’s sister), and gives a straightforward question when he asks, “What’s the attraction?” Here’s the line I love, which I think is incredibly profound:  Rocky replies by saying, “I don’t know, she fills gaps, I guess. . . She’s got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.”

I have often used this phrase when providing marriage counseling.  When I would meet with a couple, I would use as an illustration a ring that my mother-in-law had, which was made up of separate bands, each with alternating spaces and gemstones, that when put together made one beautiful circular band of gems. Then I would quote the line from Rocky, and explain how, in a marriage relationship, a husband and wife each bring different strengths and weaknesses, and that part of their individual role in building a successful marriage was to fill in each other’s gaps so that they would be better as a couple than either one could be as an individual.

This same idea should be true in teams, but often is not.  Rath and Conchie (Strengths-Based Leadership) realized this in their study of teams and leadership, finding that “rarely are people recruited to an executive team because their strengths are the best complement to those of the existing team members.” (2008, p. 21) When they looked for teams that were successful and functioning well, they discovered that, “while each member had his or her own unique strengths, the most cohesive and successful teams possessed broader groupings of strengths.” (p.22)  From this they learned that, “although individuals need not be well-rounded, teams should be” (p. 23), and therefore “it serves a team well to have a representation of strengths.” (p. 23)

The truth of the matter is, no one individual leader can be the best at everything that is needed.  When one person tries to “do it all,” the result is, as the old saying states, “a jack of all trades but a master of none.” But when a team is assembled that is comprised of differing strengths and abilities, the members of that team fill in the gaps for each other.  It makes sense, then, that good leaders “understand what they’re good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.” (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2011, p. 181)  These leaders gather teams that offset the leader’s limitations.  The result is that the combination of individual strengths makes a better whole.

As a leader, you need to know your limitations and your capabilities.  Where you have limitations, or gaps, it is a misuse of your abilities and your time to try to fill in those gaps on your own when you have people around you who can fill in those gaps for you.  This means it is part of your responsibility as a leader to be intentional about placing people on your team who will provide the best combination of necessary strengths and skills.  It is also your responsibility to be active in developing those strengths and skills in your team members.  In the process, when you identify a deficiency in the team that cannot be filled by a current team member, you need to find the right person who can fill in that gap and complete the team.  In the end, the best teams are not necessarily a simple combination of the best individuals, but rather the combination of people who fill in all the gaps.

Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., & Senge, P. M. (2011). In Praise of the Incomplete Leader HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 179-196). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.