It somewhat goes without saying that without a team, there is no need for a leader … but this leadership quality goes beyond that. Instead of the common notion that the purpose of the team is to support the leader and follow their instructions, the truly effective leader exists to support and enable the team. This was discussed to some extent in the post on humility, but it goes beyond that. The entire focus of the leader must be on what the team needs: personnel, resources, encouragement, visibility, etc. It’s the leader’s job to take care of the team so that it can accomplish what needs to be done.
First of all, the team has to have the right people in the right roles. There’s a myth that a good leader can take any group of people and make a successful team. Sometimes we get lucky and have all the right people on hand to do the tasks, but more often we build our teams based on what needs to be done. The key thing, however, is that wherever possible, you need to get the best person possible for each role. Factors such as skills and experience are important — but so are personality traits and work ethic. The team needs to come together on a personal level in order to achieve its maximum potential.
Once the team is assembled, the leader actually has to let them do the work! It sounds obvious, but too many team leads end up trying to most of the work because they have not developed the ability to delegate. This topic is worth a post of its own … but effective delegation is a combination of trust on the part of the leader and capability of the team member. Especially with new teams (or new team members), the trust factor is hard for leaders — but my philosophy is that I’m paying them to do the work, so I really should let them do it!
A common source of dissatisfaction with leadership is that they “take the credit” for all the work done by the team. This causes resentment within the team, and hinders peak performance — “why should I put in all the work if he’s taking all the credit?”. While it is natural for the leader to be recognized for the success (or failure) of the team, effective leaders will then reflect that recognition into the team — publicly praising the team for its success. Even better: wherever possible, enable the team members to share the public attention by representing the team when their work is in the spotlight. One of the best leaders I have had in my career so far was regularly called on to report on the status of the many projects we were responsible for — to the senior leadership of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. Whenever he was allowed to, he pulled each of us in to brief our projects — so we could get the recognition for the excellent work being done. If he couldn’t bring us with him, he would take the time to sit down with us and let us give him the right words to say about our projects, and he acted as our spokesman … giving us all the credit for our work.
The typical project has its ups and downs … and it is easy for setbacks and times of slow progress to result in discouragement and dissatisfaction — especially among the junior members of the team. The leader serves here as the cheerleader, providing encouragement both individually and collectively to keep the team morale up. Recognition of even small successes can work wonders when spirits are down. Long projects are especially challenging — structuring the project so that there are frequent milestones can also help by providing opportunities for celebrations when the milestones are achieved.
It may sound counter intuitive, but the less the leader directs the team, the better the team will perform. Each team member should have a clear idea of their role and the direction they need to move … the more the leader is involved in telling everyone how to do their job, the more inefficient the team will perform. Of course, the leader must set the vision and direction for the team — assigning tasks as needed, and in general keeping the work flowing. Reminding the team of the vision periodically is beneficial — it gives everyone confidence that they are doing the right thing and heading in the right direction.
Effective leaders must keep their focus on their team — the more successful they are in that task, the more successful the team will be.