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  • Jane Porter

Leaderless Teams

Sept 2020

In our current climate of continued uncertainty, where organisational and societal structures are being challenged, I’m coming across an increasing number of teams who are without formal leaders, in the traditional sense of the word.

Whether this be a result of re-structure, substantive roles not being replaced at this time, or difficultly in securing the right talent for the role, it’s creating some interesting situations and team dynamics.

Team leadership has traditionally been understood through the role of a ‘team leader’, a role where the leader holds a formal position of authority over a group of individuals united in a collective purpose. There are many, many theories, books and articles available on what effective leadership looks like, which are all interesting if leadership is present, but what if it isn’t? Where does that leave the team?

Teams as systems

Working on the premise that a team is a social system, which is a subset of a larger organisational system, we can explore how leadership emerges in a social system. In some cases, the absence of a leader can throw a team into chaos, this absence becomes a destabilising factor in the system around which the team (or system) needs to reorganise. We also know from chaos theory, that complex systems will organise themselves into patterns of interaction that can be functional or dysfunctional. One way or another they will reorganise so let’s take a closer look at the two patterns.

The functional pattern

Leadership emerges from within. It’s a shared experience of discovery and efficacy. The fact that the formal role of leader is absent becomes somewhat irrelevant. The team learns to self-manage as the system adapts in an effective manner. Leadership in the team is not a destination, it is adaptive, it is collectively held, and may shift from one individual to another, depending on the required performance outputs. At its core the team learns to be an effective learning unit as it becomes aware of both its processes and its performance objectives, as it unites around a common purpose where accountability is mutual.

The dysfunctional pattern

The absence of the formal leader leaves the team without a rudder. The team feels they have lost their purpose and direction, and no longer have representation in the organisation. Team narratives of victim and blame develop, and individuals in the team turn their focus to the performance of their own business units, and away from the collective purpose of the team. Mindsets become fixed, and whilst the team might be a formal collective in the organisational structure, they begin to operate as a group of individuals focusing on the performance of their own areas.

Hackman and Wageman (2005), believe that team leaders are often viewed as more influential in shaping team performance than is warranted by research evidence, sometimes referred to as the Leadership Attribution Error. Working with this idea along with what we know about leadership in social systems, it suggests that leadership is always available in the system of a team. If it’s not available in a traditional ‘role’ structure, how can we help teams re-think leadership and help them discover what is already sitting in the system.

Team Coaching Mindset

Team coaching explores the potential of the team; helping teams become aware of both their potential and their ability to develop together. Discovering leadership in the team is one way of working with this concept. Following Hackman and Wageman’s view, the potential of the team to discover the leadership it needs, is always on the table, albeit possibly buried in significant amounts of both external and internal interference. I’m not advocating that formal team leadership roles are removed; I am curious about the opportunity to support teams to re-think how they operate when traditional team structures may not be available.

Team coaching can be about much more than discovering leadership in the team, it is a powerful way of helping teams achieve performance by enabling them to become aware of their process dynamics whilst working towards their collective performance objectives.

Peter Hawkins (2017) in his book Leadership Team Coaching describes it as: –

“The process by which a team coach works with a whole team, both when they are together and when they are apart, in order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together, and also how they develop their collective leadership to more effectively engage with all their key stakeholder groups to jointly transform the wider business.”

Leaving the broader opportunities for team coaching for another day, let’s come back to the question of leaderless teams. If leadership is truly available in the system rather than within a specific individual, so much more becomes possible once the invisible leadership potential of the team system can be made visible for the team to develop.

“When a team outgrows individual performance and learns team confidence excellence becomes a reality”

 Joe Paterno


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