High-performance teams – Do they need leaders?

Recently I attended a training which highlighted some of the differences between team and workgroups. The discussion started with the team definition. The definition used was the one from ‘Wisdom of Teams‘ book:

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable

This immediately (and rightly so in my opinion) shows that discipline-based teams (like dev team, test team or PM team) is not really a team but a workgroup since it doesn’t have complementary skills and mostly they are individually-accountable. A real team in such discipline-based organizations (which is most of the organizations in this world) will be feature/product teams which are formed to create solution for a specific problem.

However, this got me thinking again on the topic of leadership: how important is the role of a leader in a team? In a workgroup, a leader is obviously needed because someone is needed to hold people individuals accountable to their assignments.

Most of the examples in Wisdom of Teams have designated leaders in the team (and the special role a designated leader plays in the team) but the definition itself doesn’t include the need for a leader. This may be because in a high-performance team, individuals step up to lead as needed and hence designated leader may not be needed on day-to-day basis.

However, in most real-life teams I have seen, the designated/natural leader is the one who takes the additional responsibility (call it individual accountability) to keep the spirit of team alive by continuing to strive for common purpose and mutual accountability when things go wrong or get stuck.

When we discuss the forming-storming-norming-performing model for team, storming is the phase where most teams get stuck for a long time, and again it is the designated leader who has to get the team moving on to the norming and performing phases by being creative in storming phase (without short-circuiting the process of storming of course).

In my opinion, self-managed team is a rarity and while it is an ideal goal to have, we cannot plan for such an ideal outcome and try to work without a leader. As a manager, if you get a chance to form a team, it is your responsibility to designate a leader for the team (with clear roles and responsibilities, which are different than when you are a manager for example), and you would have tremendously increased the chances of success for the team.

What do you think about this? Is a leader essential to a team, or do you think he/she will hinder the performance of the team in most of the cases?

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