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When to Lead as Important as How

As a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic period, people in teams and organizations can no longer count on succeeding by the same strategies which prevailed before the lockdown. To survive, organizations must not only espouse a philosophy of shared leadership, they must actively recruit, reward, and capitalize on the contributions of leaders at all levels in the organization and in a variety of roles.
Leadership Myths. One of the myths of team leadership development is the idea that leadership is a set of well-identified traits that work in a variety of situations. But scientific research says this is false in several ways. “Researchers over the years have been unable to identify the particular traits or behavioural styles that reliably distinguish great from so-so team leaders,” Richard Hackman and Nancy Katz of Harvard University write. They say a more useful focus is competencies, “things the leader knows or knows how to do”. If there is no validated frame of reference, knowing when to lead, let alone how to, becomes a major obstacle. In addition, every team finds itself in different situations with different leadership needs. The skill to ‘read’ a situation and what is the most appropriate leadership response is a learnable competency.
Out-In-Out Process – Focus of attention in the here and now are necessary to start the process of leadership. 1. Something gets a person’s attention 2. Observations are processed, thoughts and feelings generate choices 3. As a consequence, the person responds appropriately.
Because steps 1 & 3 occur externally from the person and step 2 occurs internally, intra-personally, these steps are described as the “Out-In-Out” process of leadership.
Life-Cycle – There are four periods in a team’s life-cycle when a leader can have a strong impact.
1. Before the team first meets; “When the leader can structure the group and arrange for resources and contextual supports that facilitate competent teamwork…”
2. At the start of work; “At which point the leader can bind the group, help members become oriented to one another and to their collective work, and foster collective motivation to perform that work well…”
3. At the midpoint; “When the leader can help members reflect on and improve the appropriateness of its performance strategy and actions …”
4. After the project is done; “When the leader can help members learn from their collective experiences and thereby strengthen the group’s overall complement of knowledge and skill…”
If you’re thinking this doesn’t apply to your team because it doesn’t do projects, it does. “When there is no deadline or it is ambiguous, groups do not establish a pace for their work and tend to flounder,” When a functional team re-organize, you create performance standards and a continuous improvement plan with deadlines.
Note that two of the four periods listed above when leaders have the most impact occur around the team’s start. If your team does not have a well thought out formal team structure, you have given up 50% of your chance to influence how well it performs. Formal structures should foster and promote:
• Interdependence, built into the team task, since that gives members both occasion and incentive to learn from one another (collaborative accountability)
• Psychological safety,
creating a work environment that builds trust
• Group potency or efficacy, a strong belief in the capability and ability to achieve
• Strong spirit within the group,
proud to be associated with, being the ‘best’
• Ownership of the team’s “goals, strategies, and processes”
For project teams past the midpoint, you’re probably too late. For everyone else, though, there is a simple solution: Start over again. Want to be a better leader? Install team agreements, science says it will improve your team’s performance more than what you do on the typical day. The time is now.

Sources: Johan Cronjé, Specialist Team Performance Coach, Intégro Learing SA; R. Hackman, and N. Katz, “Group Behaviour and Performance.” “How Leaders Foster Self-Managing Team Effectiveness: Design Choices Versus Hands-on Coaching,” Organization Science