Great Teams Have Great Leaders


Great teams have great leaders.

But great leadership is not a paint-by-numbers experience. There is an art to leading teams. In this post I share an important model that can help team leaders improve their art of leadership.

Team Leaders Matter

High performing teams share at least four characteristics:

  1. A high performing team is a real team.Click here to read.
  2. A high performing team knows its mission. Click here to read
  3. A high performing team has a useful structure. Click here to read.
  4. A high performing team has a strong leader.

As in sports, it is not enough to only have great players, the leader makes a difference.

What Is A Team Leader?

A team is "a group of people committed to a common purpose who choose to cooperate to achieve exceptional results."[1] The team leader, then, is the person responsible to stand at the front of this group to move it forward so the team serves others by accomplishing their task. Let's examine four key concepts about team leaders:

  • Team leaders are responsible. They willingly take ownership of caring for the team and accomplishing the task.
  • Team leaders listen. Joseph Rost has said, “Leadership is an influencing relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.”[2] Leaders understand the mutually influencing nature of teamwork. So team leaders listen. They are collegial, not dictatorial.
  • Team leaders serve. They serve their team by caring for them and they serve their organization by ensuring that the team accomplishes its mission.
  • Team leaders lead. Servant leaders understand that leadership, at its core, means to stand at the front. At the beginning of the journey someone has to point out the task to be attended and call for the team to move out and get the job done.

What Is The Team Leader's Role?

Great leadership is much more than yelling, "Charge!" Richard Hackman has noted: that "the most important responsibility of the team leader is to create the kind of conditions that allow the team to thrive as they work together to accomplish their task.[3] In Leading Teams, Hackman offers the following model as a guide to identify and assess this important leadership role.

Hackman Conditions Model
Hackman Conditions Model

Team leaders monitor three conditions within the group: Real team (the team make-up and relational health); Compelling direction (clarity and movement with respect to the team's task/mission); Enabling structure (the systems and processes that help the team to function effectively). Hackman notes that team health, clear direction, and enabling structure are core components every team must have to be at their best.

To have this core is not enough, however, for a team to be at its best. Team leaders must also work to monitor two conditions "outside of their team" that have a huge bearing of their effectiveness: Supportive organizational context (an organizational environment that is conducive to effectiveness); Expert coaching (getting the advice/wisdom/skills necessary to do the job).[4]

5 Questions Every Team Leader Should Ask

It is the leader's job to monitor the conditions for effective teamwork. Here are five questions leaders must address:

1. Real Team: Am I caring for the team?

In the post, Is Your Team A Real Team (click here to read), I shared that teams are bounded. Someone is either on the team or not. Great leaders not only know who is on the team, but they also take the time to care for the members of their teams.

To put it bluntly, people can be effective leaders with little structural authority and a modicum of flair, but they are unlikely to lead well without significant doses of persuasion and example. Again, this is because leadership is fundamentally relational: effective communication and building trust are key aspects of all relationships, whether in marriages, families, political movements or multinational corporations. The “human side of management,” as Thomas Teal of the Boston Consulting Group calls it, is all-pervasive but sometimes overlooked. Leaders must be fully cognizant of the fact that their role “is not a series of mechanical tasks but a set of human interactions.”[5]

Leaders must constantly ask: "How am I caring for the team?" "Are we keeping communication lines open?" "Is my relational capital with my team increasing or diminishing?"

2. Compelling Direction: Am I keeping our team on mission?

There are ten different ways to get from Miami to Memphis. If you are the leader and your destination is Memphis, it is your job to make sure the team knows its destination and is actively on task, moving in that direction. Does your team know it's mission? Is the team able to clearly articulate the mission?

3. Enabling Structure: Am I monitoring our systems and processes?

Does your team have the necessary systems and process in place to do its job exceptionally well? Is your recruiting system, training system, information system, and evaluation system in place? Do all the team member know who is responsible for what? Do they all know when their specific parts of the job must be done? If your structure is solid, you can lose a team member without losing your mind. You can click here to read more about structure.

4. Supportive Organizational Context: Is the organizational environment supportive?

The team leader is also an advocate for the team in the larger organization. As such, a leader will speak up on the team's behalf when the leader feels the team is not able to work at peak performance. The leader must address organizational limitations whether they be related to empowerment, finances, training or anything else the leaders perceives as hindering the group's performance.

5. Expert Coaching: Am I and my team getting the coaching we need?

Leaders need not do all the coaching, but they must ensure that both they and their teams are getting what they need. Leaders coach people by asking about their relationship with God and with their team. Leaders coach the process by looking at both the task that needs to be done and the relationships of the people who are carrying it out. Leaders coach for results by establishing evaluation as a value and by insisting on regular team performance reviews. Is your team getting the coaching it needs?

Great Leader -- Great Team

It takes a great leader to make a great team, but not a perfect leader. Great leaders know that leadership development is an ongoing process so they are are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves and their team. In the words of the Apostle Paul, they lead with zeal. Take a minute to look back over the five questions. Which is your strong suit? Which one needs your immediate attention? Once you identify it, what is your next step to help your team be the best it can be?

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them . . . the one who leads, with zeal! Romans 12:6,8 ESV


[1] Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor. Unlocking The Secrets Of Teamwork. Nashville: Broadman & Holman. 2001. Page 30.

[2] This definition is adapted from Joseph Rost, Leadership For The Twenty-First Century.

[3] Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting The Stage For Great Performances. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2002. Page 31.

[4] Hackman, Leading Teams. Hackman's book focuses on helping the leader monitor and build these conditions.

[5] John Paul Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Page 43.