TL;DR Even today, many treat leading teams as a modern form of livestock herding. Limit the information (to avoid distraction), assign tasks, make a checkpoint each week, force controlled crunch before deadline, rinse & repeat. Fortunately, we can do so much better than that, if we manage to break some basic mental barriers - first: leading can (& should) out-scale; second: leading doesn't have to take ownership from team members; third: leadership is about communication (hence: understanding), credibility (hence: trust) & initiative (hence: driving actions).

There are some topics that never stop popping up: even if in different contexts, setups, projects & organizations. One of them is clearly team leader (as a position or role) & team leadership (as a skill / proficiency). As I was recently involved in some discussions regarding that, I've decided to scribble down some points I find particularly important, for future reference (either for yourself - dear reader, or for myself, so I can avoid repeating myself over and again ;> ...).

Basically, this time it has all started with one simple question - who (for myself) is a real team leader & what are the key factors that either make her/him successful or not.

Before I get to my answers for these questions, let's set up a proper baseline in terms of naming & definitions:

  1. leading team is a role, not a position (with obvious implications)
  2. leading team happens within several dimensions, each dimension can be covered by someone else, but the split should be unambiguous and transparent
  3. leading a dimension is not about being unconditionally decisive (because of some badge or sthng), but rather understanding whole picture (within this dimension) on (at least) a team level, ...
  4. ... being able to reforge this understanding into necessary actions on the team level (that the team will be willing to perform) and ...
  5. ... taking accountability for them, without "buts" & "excuses" - therefore having this dimension "covered"
  6. a critical condition for leading a dimension is leader's credibility (in eyes of his team-mates, based on merit / experience / accumulated trust), not being appointed by someone important

Leadership hyperspace

What are these "dimensions" I keep referring to?

All key aspects of teams' operational activity: business domain(s), technology(ies), internal/external PR, organizational (HR-like) matters, product/market vision, research, risk, etc. Is small units that operate in well-established orgs, working on stable, long-living & technologically homogenic products these can be easily covered by a single person (this may simplify things a lot), but once conditions get more & more dynamic (start-up-like environment, rapidly growing / transforming organization, evolving product, technological outburst) having a hybrid leadership of few people with various specialties may make a lot of sense.

Needless to say - these can't be random people. They are supposed to act TOGETHER & provide full leadership coverage for the team. If their accountability split is unclear or overlapping, things will not fly.

What is more, being a leader (in general or in particular dimension) is not only about the knowledge & experience, but also about drive & ability to execute (aka "make shit happen") - such a person has to be able to (within the dimension of her/his interest):

  • correctly (& pragmatically) assess the situation
  • pro-actively anticipate both opportunities & risks
  • make / enforce / work out a decision (by convincing / crying / asking / threatening - whatever works well short- & long-term for your team)
  • escalate to a proper recipient when things get out of her/his autonomy range
  • efficiently communicate with others, so every interested party gets the information it needs (not too little, but also not too much); btw. let's make it very explicit - excellent communication is crucial even for technical leaders
  • drives actions so they actually happen - as being accountable for particular dimension doesn't mean that such a leader has to do everything her/himself - quite the contrary, proper delegation & collaboration is crucial to remain effective

Fuel their fire

As you can clearly see - it's not the easiest stuff ever. Good leader(s) should be a driving force, flight controller, attorney, pathfinder, psychologist, scout, cheerleader, public spokesman & many, many more. Her/his duty is to make sure that team acts as a real team (not a random bunch of people recruited in roughly the same time, for roughly the same purpose), to fulfill the obligations they have ALL (not just a leader) committed to (goals, vision, scopes, metrics, dates, ...).

And as if that was not enough, the primary task for the team leader(s) is ... building the team. Or rather, managing the conditions in a way that helps team to "build itself". It's something that does not happen within a day, sometimes can't happen without casualties (wrong hires happen, not everyone will blend in everywhere) and sometimes even leads to emergence of a new leader(s) who overshadow prior ones.

How much time does it take to become a fully-fledged leader? How much leadership experience is needed to reach full team leading capability?

Oh well, I'm trying to trick you - in this (leadership) business learning never truly stops ... Conditions change, people change, levels of autonomy change, challenges change - circumstances are (almost) never alike, so they require adjusting your style & behavior pretty much continuously. So even if the key principles remain the same (e.g. listening is more important than speaking, even the most valid excuse is never enough, understanding the borders of autonomy & knowing when to escalate is crucial, there's not trust w/o transparency, leading team is about fully adhering to team interest - instead of your interest, nothing kills your credibility like failing unrealistically inflated expectations, etc.), hubris & over-confidence can bring even the most experienced leader to ruin.