What makes a successful team leader? What’s the theory behind modern leadership styles and how can you put it into practice? Find out in this post.

What is team leadership?

What is team leadership?

Broadly speaking, team leadership involves aligning a group of people towards a common goal and ensuring they have all the support they need to achieve it. But that’s a very broad definition.

Over 2,500 years ago, the Chinese general Sun Tzu laid out the virtues of great team leadership in his book The Art of War. It introduced leadership concepts like taking a path of least resistance and the responsibility of authority. Since then, the topic has engaged, challenged, divided and inspired thought leaders, academics and business moguls alike.

But while there are now thousands of books on the subject there’s no single definition of what the term actually means.

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Depending on the model in question, the team leadership role may be carried out by a team or an individual. It also covers a diverse skill set that includes morale building, training, logistics, strategic thinking, creativity, flexibility, project planning and strong communication skills to name just a few.

5 popular team leadership models

5 popular team leadership models

Over the years, many different team leadership styles have taken their turn in the spotlight. They’re broadly divided into those that focus on the characteristics and strengths of the leader and those which start with the requirements of the team. Here are five of the most enduring.

1. McGregor’s XY

Theory developed by Douglas McGregor in the 1950s: What a leader believes about their team determines how they lead. That was the assertion of social psychologist Douglas McGregor who published his team leadership model in the 1950s.

Theory X represents a more traditional transactional and authoritarian style of leadership. It assumes that people dislike work, only do it for the money, and must be coerced, controlled or directed into productivity.

Theory Y works on the premise that people are interested in their work, creative in their problem solving, and want to be self-directing and take responsibility.

McGregor, who saw self-actualization as the greatest motivation, was an advocate of the latter. His participative stance is one that’s become increasingly popular as more people are now interested in doing work with a purpose.

2. Situational Leadership

Created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in 1969: This team leadership model has evolved since its introduction in 1969. It focuses on the ‘competence’ and ‘commitment’ of each team member. In other words, do they have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience, and are they sufficiently confident and motivated, to deliver?

It’s up to the team leader to evaluate people based on these criteria and adapt their leadership style accordingly. In doing so they can encourage greater competency and commitment across the team.

3. Action Centered Leadership (ACL) or the ‘Three Circles Model’

Developed by John Adair in 1973: This team leadership model was considered groundbreaking when it was first shared in 1973. Rather than focusing on the characteristics of the leader, it looks at what they need to do to lead their team effectively. These possible actions are grouped into three areas: Task, Team and Individual. The aim is to find the right balance between them at any given time.

These possible actions are grouped into three areas: How to achieve a task, how to support a team, and how to develop individuals. The aim is to find the right balance between them at any given time.

4. The Leadership Challenges

Developed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner in 1987: What are leaders doing when they’re at their best? Based on data from numerous surveys, that’s the question this transformational approach to team leadership attempts to answer. Kouzes and Posner established five areas for aspirational leaders to focus on.

They suggest leaders establish a set of guiding principles that they can use to create a motivating shared vision. The model then encourages everyone in the team to challenge the status quo - to accept that established processes aren’t always the right ones and there’s always room for improvement.

Leaders should empower people to act by enabling collaboration, and all of it is underpinned by emotional intelligence: recognizing effort and encouraging achievement as a way to motivate and build team resilience.

5. The 6 Emotional Leadership Styles

Established by Daniel Goleman in 2002: A figurehead in the emotional intelligence movement, Goleman’s theory requires leaders to become ‘barometers’ of the emotional ups and downs in their team. Then they can tailor their leadership style to suit the mood and, hopefully, foster a positive working environment.

To make this easier, Goleman laid out six leadership styles: Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting and Commanding.

What is Team Leadership Theory?

What is Team Leadership Theory?

The way teams work together has evolved. Remote working, plus the increase in more complex cross-functional projects, has called for more flexibility, creativity and innovation in leadership. An outcome of this evolution is the introduction of the Team Leadership Theory.

This dynamic approach to leadership removes the traditional hierarchy of leader and team – and the authoritarian ideas of status that go with it. Depending on the situation, the leader is just the person with the most relevant knowledge and experience at that time.

It’s a model that comes out of the idea that every member of the team is interdependent and working towards a common goal with a shared interest in their collective success. This inclusive team leadership model allows everyone to feel they have something important and valuable to add.

The goal here is high team effectiveness. It’s also often the outcome. However, it needs a strong team to succeed – one where interpersonal dynamics are seamless, everyone buys into the process, and the team has a level of experience.

The pros and cons of leadership teams

The pros and cons of leadership teams

Another variation on the theme is the leadership team – a group rather than an individual calling the shots. This participative model can be applied to almost any business. By necessity, it relies on a democratic approach with all the positives and negatives that come with that.

The advantages of leadership teams

  • Effective problem solving for complex issues, particularly by using creativity

  • Strong working relationships and collaboration between team members

  • Information-sharing enables team members to develop broader knowledge beyond their specialist areas

  • Leads to thorough and carefully considered solutions – many heads are better than one

  • Higher levels of job satisfaction as everyone feels that their knowledge and experience matters

The disadvantages of leadership teams

  • Democratic processes take time and patience, so they’re less effective when you need a quick decision

  • Individual opinions may be rejected in favor of others which can lead to disappointment or a sense of being undervalued

  • There are times when a team can’t reach a consensus. This might mean needing an odd number of team members to force a casting vote, or require a chairperson

In these unprecedented times, good leadership is essential to keep organizations on a track. But what does that look like?

What are team leadership skills?

What are team leadership skills?

There are important skills that will take you from being a good leader to being a great one. Here are ten of them.

Stay switched on

With change happening at a pace, taking action without external reference is a minefield of missed opportunities. You’ll also be more likely to lose out to those who do have their ear to the ground.

It’s essential to engage fully with and listen to your team, your competitors and the world beyond your industry. You need to be situationally aware, pay attention to the feedback, analyze the available information, be prepared to learn, and draw on the expertise of others to navigate your course successfully.

Hone the soft skills

According to McKinsey Global Institute research, up to half of all current work activities could be automated by 2055. The impact of this shift is an estimated 24% increase in the hours that US and European workers spend on soft skills.

Also known as non-technical skills, soft skills are often undervalued and harder to quantify than hard skills like coding or budgeting – and yet they’re a vital part of effective team leadership. Your ability to collaborate, teach, exercise emotional intelligence and adapt and support your people in doing the same is the glue that holds your team together.

Embrace digital

With the rise in e-commerce, online working and AI and automation, business is going digital. But research by MIT Sloan Management Review reveals that just 7% of large companies have digitally savvy executive teams. And yet a review of nearly 2,000 companies found that those with digitally savvy leaders outperform their peers on revenue growth and valuation by over 48%.

Understanding the potential of digital to shape the way we do business is essential for team leaders – as is embracing the technology available now that can support teamwork. That means smarter approaches to video communication, chat, knowledge sharing and many others.

Get to grips with hybrid teams

The way we work has changed. We do more of our decision-making, reporting, analysis, and coordinating remotely and more MIT Sloan Business Review research suggests it's a trend set to continue.

But face-to-face interactions are still critical if a team is to thrive. They help people build emotional connections. They allow for difficult conversations and make it possible to integrate knowledge, solve complex problems, innovate and establish a stronger company culture.

Leaders should understand and balance the pros and cons of virtual versus in-person collaborations, operate effectively in both situations and support their teams to do likewise – for example through frequent communications and clear guidance.

Communicate effectively

Successful team leadership requires impeccable business communication skills – and not only to navigate today’s more complex ways of working. Clear, honest communication builds trust, reduces the likelihood of costly mistakes and establishes strong working relationships that keep your team engaged, informed and feeling supported.

Forbes makes an historical point that being a great communicator isn’t the same as being a great talker. It’s a case of quality not quantity. Take time to reflect and consider before speaking and focus on dialogues not monologues. And take the time to encourage your team to develop their own communication skills too.

Be a visionary

In times of challenge, complexity and hardship, the ability to look beyond and envision recovery and growth is vital. Spend time thinking about the possibilities. Where do you want your team and organization to be in 5 or even 10 years?

And then communicate this vision clearly and succinctly. As a leader, your role is to motivate and inspire, as well as establishing an ongoing dialogue with your team. Make sure they really understand the part they play in making that vision a reality, keep them updated on progress, allow for questions and feedback, and above all, be as honest as you can be.

Champion diversity

Research has shown that diverse companies, management teams and boards do better. Inclusive companies are more innovative and creative. Diverse teams bring a breadth of knowledge and experience that means a problem or challenge can be seen from many different perspectives.

Good team leadership requires a consistent focus on encouraging, supporting and embracing that diversity. There are many ways to go about this, from weeding out unconscious bias to improving the way you work with cross-border teams.

Be creative

LinkedIn called creativity ‘the most important skill in the world’ and the soft skill companies need most. However, according to Forbes, 75% of adults believe they are not ‘living up to their creative potential’ and are under pressure at work to be productive instead.

Creative leaders see things differently, bring more versatility to complex problem solving and have greater job satisfaction. By framing challenges as intrinsically motivating, bringing diverse teams into play and daring to challenge assumptions, you can set your organization apart and give it that elusive competitive advantage.

Develop your competence as a manager

The traditional corporate hierarchy means that leadership roles are often the reward for excellent work within your area of specialism. While this may make you a highly skilled professional, that skillset doesn’t necessarily include people management.

In addition to understanding the business, its goals, processes and procedures, you need to understand how people work – and how you can support them and bring their competencies into play at the right time.

Contrary to the organizational structure that places the team leader at the top of a triangle, a more helpful model is to invert that triangle, putting you in a supportive position at the bottom. What can you do to ensure that your team has everything they need to succeed? This could include training and mentoring, providing the right tech or equipment, creating clarity around goals and objectives, or motivating and inspiring them to do the work required.

Lead by example

The most influential leaders don’t stand on the sidelines shouting directions. They’re fully engaged and involved with their teams. Plus, they model the qualities they want to see in those around them. Whether it’s showing empathy or the ability to listen and act on feedback, leading by example is one of the most powerful ways to influence others.

In a team leadership situation, you’re in the spotlight. Be mindful of what you say and how you say it and take responsibility for your mistakes. Your enthusiasm will be infectious too, so you must believe in what you’re selling into your team. and integrity are key. If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, your team never will.

The importance of team leadership

The importance of team leadership

Get all this right and your impact can be far reaching.

For your team

As a team leader you build the confidence and capabilities of your team. You’re central to the creation of a working culture that values each individual and acknowledges the experience and expertise they bring. You can make or break morale depending on the way you treat those around you and see loyalty soar by giving your team the respect and support they deserve.

A culture of trust, honesty and integrity increases employee engagement and improves job satisfaction. Your people feel safe in stepping up to a challenge, get the credit they deserve and gain a real sense of achievement from their successes.

For the business

Strong teams provide the foundations of high-performing businesses. Productivity, customer service and satisfaction, innovation and efficiency increase in line with revenues. A committed and engaged workforce is more likely to go the extra mile, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Good team leadership results in high employee retention rates and builds the reputation of the company as a desirable (as well as a successful) place to work. It creates a corporate culture that makes your organization more appealing than those of your competitors, attracting the talent it needs to shine.

For the wider world

Good leaders set the moral compass of a business, from how it treats its employees to its attitude towards its customers. And leaders also reflect how an organization views its place in the world – and the responsibilities that come with it.

From decisions about the supply chain to how diversity is encouraged across the company, these leadership decisions ripple out into wider society.

And leaders also have an impact on their peers. Leading by example extends beyond your direct reports. Technology has broadened your potential sphere of influence, allowing the decisions you make to be noticed and shared across the globe.


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