What sort of leader do you need?

January 29, 2007

More often than not, project teams appear to have little say in the appointment of a team leader. However, in practice, leadership gets shared around more than is immediately obvious. This is at the heart of distributed leadership, sometimes called superleadership. Paradoxically, it may also be connected to the operating of so-called leaderless groups.

A question to for project team members. Are you expecting too much from your leader? A message to team leaders: do you appreciate how delegating some leadership responsibilities can improve team performance and well-being? These possibilities have been discussed for many years, although they have been tested in practice in only a minority of project teams.

Nobody’s perfect, but a team may be.

Many years ago an influential article entitled Nobody’s perfect, but a team may be helped popularise the idea that the success of a team requires a range of roles. The article concentrated on Meredith Belbin’s team roles, which are still highly regarded in leadership development programmes internationally.

From the beginning, Belbin’s roles included that of two types of leader behaviours, roughly speaking that of a directive task oriented one, and that of a more enabling style. This could have (but generally didn’t) point to the possibility of shared or distributed leadership. This was reached later with the idea of Superleadership


Superleadership or distributed leadership is rooted in the concept that ‘no one person can effectively lead in all circumstances that a team might encounter’. The popularizers of the concept were Charles Manz and Henry Sims, Jr who have updated their ideas in The New SuperLeadership.

The New SuperLeadership critically reviews traditional leadership styles, vividly illustrating the drawbacks of each: the “Strong Man” whose reliance on fear-based compliance smothers initiative; the “Transactor” who promotes a narrow “what’s in it for me?” mentality; and the “Visionary Hero” whose powerful personality inspires commitment but inadvertently discourages independent thinking. By bringing out the leader in every employee, SuperLeadership enables leaders to avoid these pitfalls and develop an enthusiastic, innovative and energized workforce.

Christo Nel’s treatment

Christo Nel of Stellenbosch University updates the idea that leadership can and should be a more distributed set of activities.

What about leaderless groups?

This is a poorly understood concept. It is a valuable exercise to consider how a leaderless group might operate. There is some appeal, particularly for those who have suffered working for leaders from hell. A few years ago there was enthusiasm for the concept of the leadership group, particularly within public sector organizations, where issues of leadership bullying and diversity were emerging.

My own experience is that an absence of leadership is at last as much a problem as domineering and buying leadership. Furthermore, the concepts of distributed leadership can be seen by traditionalists as the ‘abdication’ of leadership to produce a leaderless group.

In preparing for this post I came across a nice introductory document on leadership groups. Closer inspection of it suggests it’s less about leadership groups than about the various facets of team and distributed leadership.

Many questions remain

I am aware that I have covered only one line of thought on team leadership. I would value to chance to learn of different perspectives or problems suggested to leaders and members of project groups, and from anyone who has been studying team leadership.