Leadership and Teamwork: Blending I and We

“There is no I in TEAM” is a popular expression, but great teams know that individual leadership is essential to effective teamwork. In fact, without effective leadership, teams often lose focus and direction, and work and morale suffer as a result.

Different leadership approaches work equally well on teams. When you are launching a team, or if you are on one right now, think about how these apply in your own environment.

Formal leadership. Formal leadership is when someone is assigned to be in charge of the group. The leader may be a project manager, a supervisor, or other formal leader.  Effective formal team leaders know when clear direction is needed, when to let go and let the team perform and when to gently facilitate the team toward a collaborative group outcome.

Emergent leadership. Self-directed work teams are popular in many workplaces. Sometimes, the team convenes with no formal announcement of who is in charge. These groups often self-organize and figure it out. Many times, a natural team leader emerges.  When the leader is liked and respected by the group, this can work well, providing the structure and direction that supports team effectiveness.  In general, the different approaches used by a formal leader also work for an emergent leader. The key is accurately reading the team and exercising the right leadership skills at the right time.

Floating leadership. Floating leadership is when different team members take on the primary leadership role, depending on what is going on. For example, one technical team we recently worked with regularly discusses “who is driving” for different meetings or tasks.  It is a powerful metaphor, because everyone knows who is in charge when and leadership “floats” based on the expertise needed at that time for that task. Team members learn to seamlessly transition from follower to leader to follower, allowing the best person for any given problem to take the wheel, without conflicting “backseat driving.”

These models overlap. A team may have a formal leader, but that leader encourages emergent or floating leadership to take hold. Emergent leadership may become regular floating leadership as project needs shift over time.

Think about the teams you have been on. Who has filled what different roles when? What went well? What did not go well? What style are you personally most comfortable with? How could you modify your own style to serve the teams you lead or are on?

Effective leadership and successful teamwork go hand in hand. Recognizing these general leadership models helps highlight the different skills that are needed at different times – all with the goal of enhancing team dynamics and achieving organization results.