News & Insight
June 2008

Are Your Team Leaders Leading or Managing?

In 1977 Abraham Zaleznik penned an article that was still being debated in graduate schools 20 years later: that, in spite of the challenges imposed by changing markets, organizations persisted in perpetuating the development of managers over leaders, who are different in basic personality, as well as in attitudes toward goals, conceptions of work and people relationships.[1] More than 10 years later John Kotter argued that leadership and management are two distinctive and complimentary systems of action—a focus on change versus complexity, respectively, and that most corporations were “over-managed and underled.”[2]

The Need for Leadership

Today, few if any organizations are protected from the forces of change, and have recognized the importance of leadership (witness how quickly management teams became leadership teams), and the need to develop leaders. From our work with teams, however, we have found that most team leaders are really managing, not leading. Changing the language doesn’t work, and in fact exacerbates the problem.

The first question of course is whether the team leader should be managing, leading, or both. That depends on whether the competitive environment is peaceful, moderately hostile, or engaged in full combat. As Kotter noted, “no one has yet figured out how to manage people into battle.“ The business strategy also matters.

The Challenge of Leadership

The greater the threat and/or need for flexibility, the more leadership is required. While strategies are easy to change, the most difficult challenge lies within the organization, embedded in the assumptions, the structures, the mindsets—the fear of risk which managers were created to eliminate—in all of the beliefs and values that take root in the hierarchical, control-centered cultures of so many complex organizations.

The problem is not that markets are changing, but that organizations are not inherently flexible. No wonder Zaleznik questioned the ability of organizations to develop leaders. It requires internal conflict within structures designed to maintain stability, order and to avoid risk. Organizational leaders are the trustees of the culture, and ensuring continuous alignment with the business strategy requires creative intervention to avoid the downward pull of fragmentation and ossification. It is their most critical mission. Structures should not trump leadership.

Leading Change is a Team Sport

Cultural change is a team sport—it cannot be won by individuals playing different games. Effective team leadership requires both strong leaders and cohesive, complementary teams of leaders at all levels. But the buck stops with the team leader, and those who appoint them. While everyone has the capacity for leadership, though different in type and scope, effective team leadership requires unique capabilities both in terms of character and capability. The skills that characterize effective producers in most organizations—e.g., technical acumen, reliable execution and strategic thinking, are not sufficient to lead and connect others. This is critical, as only leaders can develop the leadership potential in others, which is why the return on leadership development initiatives in most organizations is scant, at best, and why these investments are too quickly cut when short-term profits or share prices are falling—i.e., when leadership is most desperately needed.

The Good News!

  1. People can change: Effective team leadership is one part innate or core level, and one part skill-based, but the learning is iterative and reciprocal. While the learning is quick for some, and more difficult and painful for others, the good news is that, contrary to the orthodox thinking that prevailed until a few years ago, we are not hardwired. What differentiates “learners” from non-learners is willingness catalyzed by the awareness of need. It starts within the leader but is most efficiently realized through the team.

    What we have found through our assessments of team leaders is that high-impact team leaders combine two sets of diametrically opposed qualities: 1) emotion and reason, each contributing to the effectiveness of the other, and 2) courage and toughness combined with the ability to find the best solutions through constructive team conflict, as opposed to within themselves—the character of humility discovered through Collins’ research on Level 5 leaders.[3]

    We have also found that learning best occurs in the context of the team, though targeted short-term team leadership coaching is often needed to accelerate the process. The end goal, ironically, is to diminish the presence of the leader, and strengthen the role of the team.
  2. Effective leaders working through real teams can change culture: When leaders become effective team leaders and create real teams, powerful things happen: Trust is built, barriers are broken down, differences are leveraged rather than discouraged, and creative solutions overcome past limitations. This creative energy catalyzes other teams into high impact performance mode, and culture begins to empower rather than impair real leadership.[4]

Suggested Action Plan

  1. Implement an online feedback and development system for groups of leaders to measure their effectiveness as team leaders, provide developmental direction, and measure progress every six months.
    a. Identify those team leaders that are struggling. Where willingness or core capability is lacking, re-assign them to producer or management roles that play best to their talents.
    b. Use the data to identify common issues, and provide focused learning goals, leveraging the talents and experience of your best team leaders.
    c. Develop team cohesiveness throughout the organization by focusing first on those where the productive impact will be greatest.

  2. Measure the productivity impact of high-performing versus normal teams so that development remains a top priority, especially in times of crisis.

Knowing how effective your team leaders are leading will enable organizations to act before good talent is lost. Today’s future leaders are increasingly impatient with traditional managerial style leadership. As the Gallup organization has noted, people join companies but leave managers.

Terry Overholser has over 20 years experience in profit-center leadership roles managing in-country and global financial services businesses as well as a major U.S. investment consulting business. Today, Terry is a Senior Advisor on the WJM Faculty, specializing in assessing and developing Team Leaders and facilitating high-impact Team Effectiveness programs. Since 1999, Terry has been providing online organizational and executive development assessments on a global scale.


[1] Abraham Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders, Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review, 1977
[2] John P. Carter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review, 1990
[3] Jim Collins, Good to Great, Harper Business, 2001
[4] Marcus Buckingham, First Break All the Rules, Simon & Schuster, 1999

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