Is there too much focus on formal leaders?

Are team leaders really all that important?

Does “everything “rise and fall on leadership,” as John Maxwell has famously suggested? Are team leaders really all that important?

  • When a basketball team fails, should the coach be fired?  When the team wins the championship, should she be attributed as the cause of success?
  • When a small group connects so well it becomes the poster child for the whole program, should the leader be promoted over even more groups?  Or, if it fails to launch, should she be removed from her position?
  • When a church grows wildly, should the lead pastor be heralded?  Or, when it really struggles, should he be blamed?

Playing Monday-morning quarterback, we might say “no,” the team leader is not necessarily the problem.  However, the truth is that we usually celebrate leaders for team success and blame leaders for team failure.  Just look at the evening news, or the organizations around you.  When there is a problem, “leaders” are replaced.  We think it’s their fault.  When there is success, we usually say something like: “Way to go, Mary, and her team.”

Perhaps no group of persons want to believe that leaders matter more than people in leadership positions.  “Leaders” like to think that what they do matters.  Everyone does.

But a vast amount of literature suggests that formal team leaders often account for only a small part (as little as 15% in one study) of team performance. The merging of all members’ contributions and how the entire team works cooperatively accounts for much more variance.  Too often, that has very little to do with the leader’s actions. Harvard social psychologists Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman termed the phenomenon of overemphasizing leadership as the leadership attribution error.

All in all, we’ve made too much of a deal of formal leaders.  The implications are profound:

  1. Leaders focus on getting, keeping, and establishing themselves in leadership positions rather than helping the team interact synergistically.
  2. The contributions of non-“leaders” are discounted.  Management scholar Henry Mintzberg stated: “By the excessive promotion of leadership, we demote everyone else.” 
  3. “Leaders” take on way too much stress and strain.  They put on their shoulders what they, alone, weren’t intended to realistically handle.  Incidentally, that’s one of the primary reasons Scripture advocates shared leadership, and why we see significant movement toward leadership teams in corporate and non-profit organizations.
  4. Team members wait for their leaders to act, fail to bring their best efforts to the task, but then excoriate their leaders when the team fails.
  5. Team members don’t lead when they should; instead, they compete with one another to get the coveted leadership position.

When we focus less on leaders, we remember that every team member has something important to contribute. Mintzberg went on:  “What could be more natural than to see our organizations not as mystical hierarchies of authority so much as communities of engagement, where every member is respected and so returns that respect?”

That sounds a lot like something Paul wrote about many, many years ago in I Corinthians 12: 12-27:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized bytone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

When we realize everyone’s key contributions, the team “leader’s” job is to structure the team for success, to facilitate team interaction that builds upon and coalesces every member’s contributions, and to help the team cooperatively accomplish its purpose and goals.

Overemphasizing formal, positional leadership won’t get us there, but focusing on what leaders do to actually lead will.   The next post in this series will offer uber-practical tips for providing great leadership to teams and small groups.  I hope you’ll subscribe to get the post emailed directly to you.

For further reading, check out:

  • Hackman J. R., and Wageman, R. (2005). When and how team leaders matter. Research in Organizational Behavior26, 37-74.
  • Meindl, James R, Ehrlich, S. B., & Dukerich, J. M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.
  • Mintzberg, Henry. (2009). Managing. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Photo: Coach Wagner drenched by victorious Garnets: EAWB / Eric Behrens on Flickr.com Creative Commons