A seminal paper on leadership functions identifies 15 functions divided amongst two mutually dependent phases of team activity (Morgeson et al, 2009). The first phase, called transition, consists of evaluation and planning activities. The second phase shifts focus to goal accomplishment.

Transition phase leadership functions, maintain the authors, include:

  1. Compose the team – bringing together the best available people for the job, taking into account complementary competences and ability to work together for a common goal
  2. Define the mission – clarifying the team purpose
  3. Establish performance expectations and set team goals – goals which are appropriately challenging and motivating
  4. Structure and plan – dividing out tasks and responsibilities, scheduling and so on
  5. Train and develop team members – including through coaching by the leader
  6. Sense-making — defined as “identifying essential environmental events, interpreting these events given the team’s performance situation, and communicating this interpretation to the team”
  7. Providing feedback – both to individuals and to the team collectively

Action phase leadership functions include:

  1. Monitor the team – “examining the team’s processes, performance, and the external team context”
  2. Manage team boundaries – “representing the team’s interests to individuals and groups outside the team in order to protect the team from interference as well as persuading others to support them” and co-ordinating activities with other teams
  3. Challenge the team – its performance, assumptions and ways of working
  4. Perform team tasks – “participating in, intervening in, or otherwise performing some of the team’s task work”
  5. Solve problems – diagnosing and resolving issues that prevent performance
  6. Provide resources – for example, information, equipment, finance and people
  7. Encourage team self-management – empowerment, accountability and responsibility
  8. Support the team social climate – encouraging positive and supportive behaviours between team members

While a superhero leader may take on all of these functions in their entirety, in most teams some of the responsibility – or at least the delivery – of every one of them can be shared with the team or distributed among them at least to some extent. From our studies of high performing teams, we can see examples for all 15 leadership functions:

  • Compose the team. Where team members interview and have a strong voice in selection of new members, it tends to have a positive effect on whether a hire will work out. In part, this is because they are able to bring different and multiple perspectives, compared to relying solely on the leader’s impressions of the person. A moderating factor may be the team’s willingness to embrace diversity in new members.
  • Define the mission. In practice, with the sometimes exception of the leadership team, the mission is provided from above. The task for the team and the leader is to interpret the mission in ways that make sense for the team and align with both corporate and team values. If the team is to embrace and own the mission, it must have some input into its expression and the narrative around it. The mission then becomes a collaborative endeavour between the formal leader and the team members. In some cases, the team becomes the custodian of the mission. For example, in a hospital pressure from above to hit arbitrary targets led the leader of a clinical team to lose track of the team’s primary mission (patient care). A principled stand by the team gave him the courage (and the ammunition) to resist the pressures upon him.
  • Establish performance expectations and set team goals. When people set their own goals and performance indicators, they tend to be more demanding.
  • Structure and plan. When the entire team understands the goals and the priorities, they are well-equipped to manage this process without the leader’s input, or with the leader providing oversight and approval. Over the decades, I have encountered a variety of organizations, where teams self-organize, deciding their own priorities and even, in some cases, how they should be rewarded. In recent years, Frederic Laloux has documented multiple examples of the benefits of shifting responsibility for who does what and when to the team members and away from leaders external to the team.
  • Train and develop. The leader of a team is not necessarily the most competent and knowledgeable person in relation to the tasks the team undertakes. (If they are, it is harder for them to step outside and above a focus on the task.) The idea that the role of a leader is to coach the team is widespread, but highly questionable. A definition more in line with current understanding of effective team leadership is that the leader’s responsibility is to support the creation of a coaching culture, where everyone in the team may coach each other.  (Ideally, including the team members coaching the leader.)
  • Sense-making. The assumption that sense-making is a top down process, with the leader interpreting events in the light of greater knowledge of business strategy and the wider business context, may also be challenged as overly simplistic. The perceptions of internal and external customers. For example, may also play a role in sense-making and team member may have higher connectedness with these resources than the leader. Long-serving team members may also be better than a less experienced leader at linking current events with team history.
  • Providing feedback. The literature on leader-member exchange is replete with studies that conclude managers are poor at giving developmental feedback. A recent Harvard Business Review report (Whitlock, 2018) found that 44% of managers found giving feedback stressful or difficult and nearly half of these avoided giving feedback. The literature on psychological safety (which is strongly linked to team performance) finds that honest feedback between team members (and from team members to the leader) are key indicators of a psychological safe environment. In a healthy team, feedback-giving in all directions is an essential attribute. Both the leader and team members also have the ability to gather feedback from external stakeholders, to inform how the team evaluates its performance. 
  • Monitoring the team. Transparent processes that allow the team and its leader to recognise when tasks are going well and less well and how the team is performing against agreed targets are very basic tools of management. But who decides what the measures should be, how to collect them and when they should be adjusted to new circumstances? There appears anecdotally to be a strong connection between employees’ perception that a measure is or isn’t helpful to their job roles and the emotional connection with and commitment to the measure. If this is correct, then it makes sense for team members to have greater say in the design and implantation of measures and how they are monitored. 
  • Managing the boundaries. Teams do not normally work in isolation. Every interaction with someone outside the team has an impact on team reputation. It can be argued that a responsibility of a leader is to manage reputation upwards, while team members take greater responsibility for reputation management horizontally and below.
  • Challenging the team. In a study of team learning that I conducted with European Union funding some 20 years ago (Clutterbuck 1998), I identified a number of roles that team members played. These included roles related to challenging the team’s assumptions, ways of working and so on. If the leader is the only one providing this kind of challenge, it creates the potential for the team members to abdicate their own responsibility for innovation and self-challenge. The argument is that the leader, being wholly or partial external to the team, has a clearer perspective. In reality, team members can just as easily invite customers to present to them. Moreover, new team members can provide valuable different perspectives in their first few weeks with them team.
  • Performing team tasks. The balance of the leader’s role between facing upwards and facing downwards can be delicate and vary widely with context. If the leader is inside or partially inside the team, they have greater potential to become a role model. The danger is that they do too much of the day-to-day work (often because they enjoy it) and not enough stepping back and stepping out. If the team and the leader can regularly discuss together what the team needs from the leader, then a healthier allocation of work may result.   
  • Solve problems. How many times have we heard the maxim “Don’t just bring me problems; bring me solutions”? The leader as heroic fixer disempowers his or her team. A better option for high performance is to develop the skills of the team individually and collectively to be creative and innovate.
  • Provide resources. By virtue of hierarchical authority and the links that that provides with resource-holders, formal leaders are arguably more likely to be successful in ensuring the team is allocated the resources it needs. But outside of the formal structures resource acquisition takes place through the relationships individuals have with colleagues in other teams. In a study of talent management (Clutterbuck, 2012) I was struck by the way that people demonstrated leadership qualities through informal interactions on the intranet. One of the conclusions of the study was that identifying issues that needed to be tackled (opportunities or problems), developing innovate solutions and bringing together the resources to implement those decisions often happened without any intervention from hierarchical leaders at all. People sharing ideas on the intranet would volunteer information and sometimes time to bring ideas from concept to reality. There is probably a threshold, where informal leadership of this kind has to give way to more structured processes in order to obtain the level of financial support needed. In the work team, however, making stakeholder engagement and resource acquisition a collective responsibility fits well within a digital world.
  • Encourage team self-management. Yes, it’s important for the leader to do this, but peer support is also a factor in how well people manage themselves. Collective self-management requires team members to accept responsibility for educating and supporting colleagues – for example, by coaching and mentoring.
  • The social climate. It is often said that the leader creates the climate. Their mood affects that of everyone else in the team. Equally, the host isn’t the only one who makes a party – the guests have a role to play, too. The social climate is underpinned by fizz (enjoyment of the work you do) and buzz (enjoying the company around you). The greater the say the team has in how work is allocated to fit with each member’s interests and energy and in who joins the team, the more positive the social climate will be, irrespective of the leader’s mood!

Implications for team coaching

Critical questions team coaching may pose to a team and its leader include:

  • What kind of leadership does this team need to best achieve its mission?
  • Which functions of leadership are most important for this team?
  • Which of those functions, if any, should be solely the responsibility of the leader?
  • Which would be best delegated to the team itself?
  • Which should be shared responsibilities?
  • How can we assess the quality of how we implement these leadership functions?
  • What additional resources do we need to distribute leadership in this way?

Facilitating open and perceptive conversations around these topics opens the teams’ eyes to all sorts of possibilities. The leadership functions reviewed in this article provide a useful fall-back when the team is unable to clarify the most relevant leadership functions for its circumstances. However, expect to identify others not in this list. For example, Morgeson et al include protecting the team from interference as part f boundary management, but for many teams this is one of the most important roles they expect of a manager. In a case represented for review in a recent team coach training workshop, the leader’s inability to provide that protection was a major cause of the team’s dysfunction.

Overall, the job of the team coach is to help the team take a much more perceptive and nuanced view of the role of leadership and to distinguish between the role of a leader and the functions of leadership. The permutations of how the team and its leader might work together then become much, much wider.

David Clutterbuck, 2019

Bibliography

Clutterbuck, D (1998) Learning within Teams Herts TEC/ European Social Fund, St Albans

Clutterbuck, D (2002) The Talent Wave, Kogan Page, London

Laloux, F (2014) Reinventing Organizatons, Nelson Parker, Brussels

Morgeson, F. P., Derue, D. S., & Karam, E. P. (2009). Leadership in Teams: A Functional Approach to Understanding Leadership Structures and Processes. Journal of Management, 36(1), 5-39. doi: 10.1177/0149206309347376

Whitlock, T (May 2018) Harvard Business Review: Employee Performance Management is broken www.standardforsuccess.com/harvard-business-review-employee-performance-management-is-broken/

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