Disassembling Leadership

A Good Lead for a Team is a Bad Lead for Another

3 minute read

One of the worse myths in the discussions about leadership and management is the idea that leaders are leaders independently of the team they are meant to lead. It’s nothing new: it’s just a variation on the lone genius myth. This is a myth the industry and existing leaders are happy to propagate as it makes then more valuable: “If people believe I can be successful anywhere, everyone would like to hire me”.

The myth comes from an element of truth: a good manager with years of expertise is more likely to have developed their skills, and they might be more compatible with more kinds of people and teams.That doesn’t necessarily mean they are a “universal leader”, just that, like every other profession, expertise matters. The issue comes when expertise becomes magical thinking.

This has some adverse effects:

  • Responsibility — it puts extremely more weight on the shoulder of the manager, even when that’s unrealistic. Responsibility has to be shared.
  • Blind Spots — the myth over-valuing managers means that many people, with big and small decisions, will focus on choosing the “right” person instead of the match between manager and team, creating a huge blind spot. I witnessed first hand VPs and CEOs incredibly successful in one place, crashing in another just because the people were different.
  • Salaries — if a single individual is magically believed to work anywhere and able to turn around any company, the salaries will raise without any grounding in reality (some analysis say that the top CEOs make 300 times more than typical workers, and it’s not tied to productivity but to market indexes) and these salaries trigger biases and lock-in effects.

Leaders and Teams are a Single Unit

Choosing, promoting, or hiring a manager shouldn’t ever be done in vacuum from the team they are about to lead.

When that decision has to happen, there are multiple factors that need to be evaluated:

  • Compatibility Factor — personalities and characters needs to match. A strong, challenging manager might be perfect for certain teams, and absolutely morale-destroying for others. We must acknowledge we are human, and we have preferences for other people, and we might dislike some. That’s fair, and it’s not unprofessional to acknowledge this and work with this as it affects directly the final performance of the team as a whole.
  • Timing Factor — there are times where a certain type of leadership is perfect, and some other times when it’s harmful. This is especially true for pacesetting and commanding leadership styles: awesome in time of crisis, but no further. Put some managers to lead specific projects at specific times to have great results, and then move things to have others to proceed from there. As a very loose abstraction, you can consider evaluating three general scenarios: growth (where there’s a push to grow), crisis (when there’s a major issue to be fixed), stability (where things are going well and someone must be in place to make sure everything works well). You’re likely to have different teams with different scenarios at the same time in any given moment (i.e. fixing a drop in sales while at the same time keeping the systems running).
  • Skills Factor — a team that complement the manager skills is ideal, thus the best scenario here is when there’s a good diversity mix among all the people. There isn’t a general rule here: a technical lead might be great for a technical team, but sometimes it’s better to put a design or a marketing lead instead, as it shifts the balance differently.

Sometimes the right person isn’t available, so compromises are needed. The good thing in embracing the approach above is that it’s known when a compromise happened, instead of blindly hoping the match manager – team works out. It also helps picking which kind of compromise one is willing to do, and maybe balance it off by having team members that are complementary.

These factors stress also another element: leadership roles should be able to shift depending on the context and people involved, and thus shouldn’t be seen as “promotions” or command a higher salary, as it would negate that flexibility.