Why Teams Succeed And Why They Fail

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Any team will usually be made up of 2 types of people, leaders and followers. And I don’t mean this according to their designated position on the team, but according to their disposition as individuals.

Some people are inherently leaders while others are inherently followers. Both kinds of people can be equally competent (or incompetent) in their job, but leaders will inevitably strive to take charge of situations, promote their agenda and generally try to take the team where they think it should go. Followers on the other hand, will tend to stay in the background and will not push their opinion as forcefully. And no, this is not just extroverted and introverted behaviour. There are plenty of introverted leaders and extroverted followers.

How Would A Team Form Naturally

Whenever a team is formed for any purpose, it is important to know what kind of individuals will make up the team and based on this knowledge, it is even more important to make sure that the roles the people are assigned on the team are conducive to the teams ability to perform.

The leaders in any group of people will naturally tend to dominate. Some leaders will be stronger than others and will tend dominate the weaker leaders, while the followers will align themselves behind the hierarchy that forms. This of course is what would happen if we let a team form naturally with no interference. In real life however, management and other external factors will always play a role when deciding what positions particular people hold on a team.

What Kind Of Teams Form In Real Life

Usually the person who ends up leading the team, is assigned to the role and this person will either be a strong leader, a weak leader or a follower (yep, a follower in a leadership role, like that has never happened before). Based on the type of person the assigned leader is and the natural dispositions of the other people in the team, you will end up with one of 4 situations:

  • a strong leader with a team full of followers
  • a strong leader with a team full of leaders
  • a weak leader with a team full of followers
  • a weak leader with a team full of leaders types-of-teams

I have made the following assumptions:

  • if there is more than one potential leader in the team, I consider it a team full of leaders
  • a weak leader is the same as a follower when there is a team full of leaders
  • a weak leader is the same as a strong leader when there is a team full of followers

With this information in hand, we can actually make a fairly accurate prediction regarding how the team will function and whether or not they can be successful and productive.

1. Strong Leader – Team Full Of Followers

This kind of team can be very successful. Infact the vast majority of successful teams have probably fallen into this category. A strong or visionary leader at the head of a group of weaker leaders and followers.

The leader will be respected by all the people in the team and his authority is unlikely to be challenged. The team members will want the respect of the leader and will therefore do their best when performing their roles. The leader, being a strong leader is able to channel the energy of the team constrictively and maintain morale.  The strong leader is also able to shield the team from outside interference.

The results that this kind of team can produce can be quite spectacular, like I said, this is the classic structure of a successful team. The reason it is the classic structure is because it is closest to what would naturally occur if the team was left to form organically. This also means that there are no major challenges when it comes to managing such a team as the team is already where it wants to be.

The one major weakness of this situation is the fact that everything is riding on the strong leader. If the leader were to be taken out of the picture for whatever reason (illness, moving on to a different role, etc.), there is a very good chance that such a team would collapse. At the very least productivity would suffer, unless there is a likely successor who is also a strong leader, but then this team would have fallen into the next category.

2. Strong Leader – Team Full Of Leaders

When a team falls in this category a lot of good things can happen. Potentially this is the best performing team and can achieve the kinds of the results that the other 3 types of teams can only dream about. However managing this kind of situation is extremely challenging and requires significant energy and commitment  on behalf of the leader as well as a level of flexibility on behalf of the other leaders who make up the team.

Most people are only human (well, all people, I guess) and can’t maintain the kind of energy and drive necessary to make this kind of team continuously successful. Therefore, when a team falls into this category, it can usually produce excellent results for a short period of time and average/good results the rest of the time.

The team members all respect each other and the leader in charge and they are all happy to work together. But, at the same time, if the strong leaders “drops the reigns” even to a small degree, the others can’t help but try to fill the gaps. This is not a failing on their part as they are only doing what good leaders should, showing initiative and picking up the slack. Unfortunately, the different people on the team would tend to pick up the slack in different places which leads to a leadership conflict (it is not necessarily overt, but it is there to some degree). This tends to unfocus the team significantly.

If you can succeed in managing this kind of team well and keeping them constantly focused (be warned that this does not happen often), the team can produce some truly superb results, but the level of experience and energy required, means that only a very few strong leaders can accomplish this.

3. Weak Leader – Team Full Of Followers

This situation is actually similar to the first situation. Here we still have a leader with a team full of followers, however the leader is not a very strong leader and is not necessarily visionary. I would say that the majority of teams out there would probably fall into this category. This kind of team is by no means a bad team. It can produce some fairly decent results and if the weaker leader is experienced, it can even produce very good results. However I would not count on anything more than average from this kind of team at any one time.

In this case the weaker leader may be respected by most of the members of the team, but some of the better followers (I.e. they are excellent at their job, but not leaders by disposition) may not respect him as much, since they can tell that he is not a strong leader. The leader may know where the team needs to get to, but simply does not have the capability to motivate and focus the team to a sufficient degree.

A lot of the time when a team is in this situation, the weak leader will subconsciously recognise that he doesn’t have the capability to drive the team as he should and will therefore tend to not interact with the team as much as he should. This can degenerate into managing/leading by e-mail, which works to some extent, but is not the way to get the best possible results from a team.

4. Weak Leader – Team Full Of Leaders

This is the worst situation for a team to be in. It is actually similar in some ways to number 2 above but only in that it is what number 2 could be at it’s worst. Here the leader is comparatively ineffectual since many of the people he is leading, can see themselves doing a better job in his place.

The respect may or may not be there, but the weak leader is certainly not respected by everyone on the team. Other team members constantly exercise their initiative even if it sometimes to the detriment of the team. The weak leader is unable to get the majority of the people to line up behind him and buy into his vision, instead the other leaders try to pitch their own vision to each other and the team. In this situation it is common for a team to fracture into multiple cliques as multiple people get behind their preferred stronger leader.

Having said all of this, it doesn’t mean that this kind of team can’t show results. If there are enough good followers and some other good leaders on the team, this team can perform fairly well, mostly by virtue of the individual effort of these people. However, this kind of team can never gel properly unless the weak leader is replaced and will therefore never show results that are better than average.

What Can We Learn From This?

The biggest lesson to take away from this is, know your people! This just incidentally happens to be one of the core laws of leadership, in the army they say, know you men (and women). If you know the natural tendencies of your people, you are a lot better equipped to place them in a team situation where they have a better chance of success.

The second lesson is pretty common sense. If you don’t have a strong leader, you need to find one. If you do have one, make sure they don’t get lured away while your team is in the middle of doing its thing. You can’t really go wrong with putting a strong leader in charge of a team. However not having a strong leader in charge can be quite detrimental to team productivity and moral.

Lastly,  everything I stated above is my opinion based on my thoughts, observations and ideas. I would love to hear other people’s opinions regarding the role of leadership in the success/failure of teams, so please leave a comment  if you have something to say on the subject.

  • http://www.theviewfromoutsidemytinywindow.blogspot.com The Logistician

    Interesting analysis. Two quick thought:

    I was in the military in the late 1960s – early 1070s. We learned that the interests of the group were most important than the interests of individuals. That has always stuck with me.

    When I was an associate and partner in law firms for almost thirty years, I learned that clients are the firm’s clients, not the individual’s client. We hammered home the practice that letters and documents should be signed on behalf of the firm, and not on the individual’s behalf.

    My point is that we can teach people to place their personal interests behind the interests of the whole. And yet, I was a leader of my firm by sitting in the background, and

    More recently, I learned that the Quaker religion conducts meetings, where the church members or Friends sit in a room and no one says anything for a while. Eventually, a view or position emerges, and it is gradually modified or altered in phases, until it emerges as a consensus amongst the participants. I found the process fascinating. You might visit the following, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quakers, especially the Section on Decision Making among Friends.

    Thanks for contributing to the expansion of our minds and the realm of possibilities.

    http://www.theviewfromoutsidemytinywindow.blogspot.com