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Management in Practice

Do teams need leaders?

The team is an indispensable component of the modern organization. Harvard professor Richard Hackman outlines how leaders can set up teams for success.

  • Richard Hackman
    Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, Harvard University

Q: There is an ongoing debate about how important leaders are to the success of an organization. What is your take?

In the management literature, the assumption is leaders make a huge difference in how well their enterprises do, whether that is a team or a whole organization. The more sociological research literature has questioned the importance of leaders: are they just swept along with broader currents that make it look as if they're making a big difference?

I do think there is a tendency to over-attribute successes and failures to leaders. If an athletic team has a winning season, we say, "What a great coach." And if the team loses, we fire the coach. My colleague Ruth Wageman and I call that the leader attribution error.

What Wageman and I have attempted to do is reframe the issue. We aren't asking, "Is a leader important?", but rather, "Under what conditions is a leader actually able to exercise considerable leverage on how well an enterprise does?" The first question is after a yes or no answer. A more helpful answer comes from asking about what makes it possible for a leader to have significant influence, and what are the things that leaders do that make the most difference.

Q: And what are the conditions that let leaders have an actual impact?

The early stages of entrepreneurial startups, if they've got sufficient capital, have lots of room for leaders to make a difference. As an enterprise becomes more and more institutionalized, that latitude shrinks to the point where sometimes what a leader has to do is to detonate a small explosive device to open up some of the constraints so that she or he can actually make a difference.

Q: A significant part of your work has focused on teams. How is it connected to your work on leadership?

Teams are a good place to start in thinking about constructive change of organizations. Teams are located right at the nexus of the individual and the organization. They're a social system, so it's not like looking at an individual, but they're not as complicated as an organization. You see what's going on with the leadership and in the social system.

Also, you really can't change an organization by working with individuals alone; looking at an individual without taking account of group membership is an exercise in futility. On the opposite end, the cultural inertia in organizations is awe-inspiring. You really can't change the culture of an organization all at once.

You can create change in teams. And if those teams start to operate better, that will have potentially positive influence on the learning and development of individual team members and on the broader organization as the lessons learned expand, laterally or upwards in the organization

Q: Could you give an example of how teams function effectively?

My colleagues and I have done research in the U.S. intelligence community over the last several years trying to understand the challenges in responding quickly and appropriately to threats against the nation. We examined what the most effective leaders of teams in the intelligence community do. The results are in our book, Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems.

One outcome was the 60-30-10 Rule. We found that about 60% of the variance in how well a team actually performs is determined even before the members come together for the first time. That is, in the basic conditions that the leader puts in place.

The next 30% is how well the team is launched. What happens when you bring these people—they are not yet a team—together for the first time? The leader or manager, who has put it together, actually breathes life into it, and the launch turns out to be a huge influence on how well a team does.

The final 10% is how and how well the leader coaches the team as they proceed with their work. That's almost the reverse of what people think leaders actually do. Typically, when we think about a leader's style, it's working with the team in real time and coaching along the way. And that's important, but it's just 10%. And it can't be done well if the basic conditions for success are not in place and if the team has had a poor launch. What the leader ought to do in that circumstance is backspace and say: "How can I get the basic conditions in place that will let us succeed?" and then re-launch as best as possible.

Q: What are the conditions a leader should be putting in place before a team is established?

What sets the stage for a great team, a great organization, or a great nation is not all that different. There are several key conditions in all cases.

We need to know who we are. If we're a team, we need to know who is on this team. It can't be a team in name only with uncertainty around who is actually participating.

We need a well-defined purpose. It's absolutely critical to be clear about what we're trying to achieve.

We need the right people on the team. Do we have the right number of people? The right mix of people?

We need norms of conduct. What goes and what doesn't go in this enterprise?

We need a supportive organizational context. Is there a broader context providing the resources, the information, and support that we need to pull this off?

We need well timed coaching. Do we have people in place to provide coaching to help the enterprise take advantage of those favorable conditions?

I run through that same list whether I'm talking about a small team, a division of an organization, a whole organization—and you can go up from there. Those are conditions of social systems which, when in place, increase the chances that that system will pursue its objectives efficiently and well. When they are not there, then the prospects for success go down.

Q: When is a team actually needed?

There are some tasks that are either so large or so complicated that no heroic individual could possibly do it. We saw this in the intelligence teams. If you have to put together data, operational conditions, political considerations, and then add a military aspect, a law enforcement aspect, and an intelligence aspect, no one person can do that. You need to bring together people who have different skills and perspectives if you want to have a chance of really figuring out what's going on and what to do about it. That's where a team is really called for.

Perversely, that example is also a circumstance when it's difficult to get the conditions that are needed for team success in place. In parts of the national security community, organizations have unfriendly or uneasy relationships. Fights may develop within the team that reflect differences in the missions and standard routines of their home organizations. You need the team, but precisely because the team is diverse and members come from different organizations, the leader has to spend a lot of time making sure that all the conditions are tilted as strongly favorably as possible and, critically, that the team has a good launch that helps people see that everybody else is a resource for accomplishing a task that will require interdependence.

Q: What's the most effective relationship between leaders and followers?

We take a functional approach to leadership, and by functional we mean that anybody who completes functions that need to be accomplished in order for the group to do well in its work, or arranges for other people to do that, is exercising leadership. So I make a big distinction between being in a role called "the leader" and actually exercising leadership. With exercising leadership, the rule is the more the better.

The really great people in leadership roles are doing everything they can to increase the degree to which everybody who is involved on the team or in the organization is diagnosing the situation, seeing what needs to be done, taking initiatives to help strengthen the performance conditions or to get problems solved.

When you have shared leadership, which you tend to have when you have a group of people working together interdependently on a highly important task, then you've got more leadership than you would ever have if you had one person sitting in a control center, issuing orders. So shared leadership looks to me to be pretty much an unqualified good, but I take pains to distinguish that from what is sometimes called co-leadership. In many cases you see co-leadership when two organizations have merged and there's a question about who is going to be the CEO. What almost always ensues is a battle to determine who is actually dominant. It's much better to have one person, who is clearly in charge, setting the conditions in place that increase the chances that other people are also going to be able to contribute their talents in providing leadership to the enterprise.

Q: You have presented the idea that the concept of good and bad leadership may not be different ends of the same spectrum, but entirely different activities. Could you talk about that?

We tend to think in terms of continua—very cold to moderate to very hot. But increasingly we're coming to understand that the things that move us from, say, the middle up to better, or from the middle down to worse are actually different things, even in the way the brain works. For example, we process positive affect differently than we process negative affect. We deal differently with the prospect of gains versus the prospect of losses. I would argue the same thing is true, for good versus bad leadership. There are multiple ways to be a good leader and there are multiple ways to be a bad leader.

Being a bad leader is not being the opposite of being a good leader. I first stumbled onto this through the research of Robert Ginnett looking at leadership in airline pilots. He found that each captain did things in their own way, but the good captains all established a team within the cockpit crew, defined the mission, and set norms of conduct that were going to guide the team.

The people who had been assessed by their peers as poor team leaders were technically capable pilots but they didn't do those things. And more than that they had trouble with control. They were too laissez faire with their crews, too dictatorial, or, worst of all, vacillated between being dictatorial and laissez faire. Poor team leaders weren't on the far end of a continuum from the great leaders. Because of the issue with control, they were doing something entirely different.

When a leader tells the team what to accomplish and how to accomplish it, the team loses autonomy. It can't really use all its members' resources. The opposite error is: "Something worrisome is going on, why don't you guys take a look at it?" It's so completely ambiguous that the team can't figure out exactly what it's supposed to do or make reasonable decisions about how it's supposed to do it.

The best statements of direction are clear and insistent about the ends to be achieved, and leaves it to the team to make the decisions about how to carry out the work.