Team leaders are leaders as well as managers

Team members working virtually and in person

Team leaders are leaders as well as managers

Team members working virtually and in person

Team leaders today occupy vital and complex roles within organizations. They deserve recognition, respect, and support commensurate with their responsibilities, starting with the label we assign to this role.

At Better Still, we have a name for individuals who are charged with overseeing the work of intact or project teams, and ensuring successful team results. We call them team leaders.

We don’t call them managers. Why?

Language matters. In our experience, “team leader” more accurately encompasses the complexities and dynamism that this critical role entails, especially today. In addition, the term suggests that such a person embodies, fractal-like, the larger leadership agenda within the whole organization.

Yet team leaders also pursue responsibilities of more traditional daily management, so it’s worth examining the whole realm that these crucial individuals inhabit.


Leadership vs. management

In 2001, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter published what would become one of the top 50 articles to appear in Harvard Business Review. “What Leaders Really Do” made this distinction between leadership and management:

“Management is about coping with complexity,” Kotter wrote. “…Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence. Good management brings a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions like the quality and profitability of products.

“Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change. Part of the reason it has become so important in recent years is that the business world has become more competitive and more volatile … Major changes are more and more necessary to survive and compete effectively in this new environment. More change always demands more leadership.”1

Kotter specifies the distinctions further. Managing complexity—the manager’s domain—happens through planning and budgeting; organizing and staffing; and controlling and problem-solving. By contrast, leaders emphasize setting a direction; aligning people; and motivating and inspiring.  

A generation after Kotter’s article, do the distinctions hold? And how does the role of the team leader manifest today?


The invigorating and demanding world of the team leader

Few would doubt that organizational work is more complex, faster paced, and more competitive than it was in 2001. Change also happens more quickly and more often. This is true at the organizational level, and in turn shapes the expectations and work of those who oversee individual teams.

Team leaders, in fact, run entities that are microcosms of the organization at large. Whether a team is an intact, permanent departmental work group or a temporary project team, team leaders must:

  • Set an overall direction and purpose for the team that inspires and motivates team contributors.
  • Create a hospitable environment for team members to do their best work individually and together.
  • Champion the team and team members within the labyrinth of organizational politics so they have the resources to do their jobs and achieve their goals.
  • Establish and sustain standards of excellence.
  • Coordinate and assign work in a way that engages people and delivers outstanding results.
  • Provide appropriate performance pressure so the team meets deadlines and achieves quality objectives.
  • Integrate the team’s work into the larger portfolio of organization efforts.
  • Manage key administrative duties, from budgeting to staffing to performance management.
  • Navigate changes—organizational changes, staffing changes, customer changes, market changes—that directly or indirectly alter the work of the team.
  • Address competing priorities and keep work moving to a positive outcome.

On top of these responsibilities, team leaders today must also:

  • Compete for talent in an era when workers are reevaluating their priorities and organizational loyalties.
  • Create inclusive and equitable work conditions that embrace many dimensions of diversity.
  • Express wisdom and compassion, and make decisions, as team members grapple with the stresses of a pandemic and its ancillary effects.
  • Establish fair and effective work arrangements that span in-person, hybrid, and remote work.
  • Build and sustain a positive culture that embraces multiple generations of workers, work styles, technologies, and human needs.
  • Respond quickly to significant disruptions that world events may introduce, from warfare to hacking and ransomware to climate change.
  • Engage in rapid, continuous learning to adjust and improve team performance.

Seen this way, team leaders today must exhibit traditional managerial acumen as well as modern leadership skills. The former is demanding enough, but it’s not the complete picture of what a team leader does. Leadership is called for, even in small teams that reside far from the C-suite.


Why does this matter? 

Historically and unfortunately, to be labeled a “manager” was not always a compliment, especially when the word “middle” preceded it: This was the task-focused, paper-pushing cog in the giant corporate machine with little power and earning little respect. (Thank you, Dilbert.)

In fact, being even a traditional manager means taking on a very hard, very honorable role, and one that is very different from being an individual contributor. A colleague once described to me the shift he had to go through when he went from being a solo employee to managing others—now, he had to learn to derive professional satisfaction not from what he could create on his own, but instead through what his team members could accomplish. That in itself is a worthy transition that merits great respect and support.

But for all the complexities involved in management, the term “manager” doesn’t capture the breadth and gravity of the leadership dimensions that overseeing a team now entails—or the opportunities that come with true team leadership.  

When we think of a team leader as overseeing a whole organization in miniature, we appreciate the multidimensionality of the role, one that encompasses both management and leadership. In turn we can:

  • Define the role more accurately on job descriptions.
  • Hire and develop talent more intentionally for this crucial role.
  • Establish compensation structures that better reflect the importance of team leadership.
  • Equip team leaders with the on-the-job support they deserve so they can excel.
  • Build a competitive advantage for the organization by emphasizing the power of excellence in team leadership.

Whatever their level in the hierarchy, whatever their scope of responsibility or size of their team, team leaders today have colossally important jobs to do in organizations. Let’s call them the leaders they are and give them the support and respect they deserve.

1 John Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review, December 2001.

Tom Lowery is Better Still’s content creator and designer. Better Still Tools and Better Still Teamwork Toolkits, including the toolkit for team leaders, provide practical support to help smart professionals make teamwork better still.

© 2020-2022 Connection Matters, Inc. All rights reserved. “Better Still” and “Better Still Teamwork Toolkit” are trademarks of Connection Matters, Inc., registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. 

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