- Dr. Timothy X. Merritt
What is Team Leadership? – Part 2
Character Traits and Leadership Theory
Before embarking on an examination of the universal characteristics of team leaders, a note of caution is advised. In the first pages of his seminal work on leadership, Peter Northouse explains that in the 1930s, the trend was to attempt to describe leadership in terms of specific personality traits suggesting that certain people had inborn qualities that made them become great leaders. He then spends the next 15 chapters explaining why the trait view of leadership was mistaken, and offering a broad overview of often strikingly different leadership philosophies from transformational, to psychodynamic, to authentic, and servant leadership styles, as well as many others. A bright line must, therefore, be drawn between a somewhat nebulous and defunct notion that innate character traits that are peculiar to born leaders and consider instead the idea that the team building process itself requires all leaders to express common characteristics.
Characteristics of Team Leaders
While neither innate nor hereditary, there are specific universal characteristics of team leaders that arise from the team building process itself. Even though descriptions of these traits are, by necessity, broad enough to encompass all situations, taken together, they nevertheless illustrate a tableau of reliable principles:
1) Do Something: If there is one characteristic that all team leaders share, regardless of their personal leadership style, it is the ability to pick a project and to start doing something about it. In Scott Berkun’s irreverent look at the Myths of Innovation, he describes the self-destructive pattern of behavior of postponing the ordinary hard work in favor of "wishful thinking" for a "silver bullet" of innovation to solve a problem. He recommends leaders get used to the fear involved in attempting an new project, and just jump into the messy process of creativity. It typically takes many different experiences, including a healthy dose of failure, to develop ideas into practical things that work.
2) Communicate a Vision: In a case study titled How a Leader’s Communication of Organizational Vision Influences the Development of Work Passion by Becky Smith, “The leader’s communication of organizational vision… influenced work passion directly by generating excitement for the vision.” When she speaks of a passion for the work at hand, she is referring to the passion of the employees, the teams, and all the stakeholders involved, including the customers. Team building does not occur in isolation, and it is up to the leader to continually beat the drum so that all the participants can synchronize their efforts. Oster also reinforces the notion of successful leaders that intuitively understand that when an organization’s vision is clearly articulated and specific, stakeholders know where and how to focus their efforts.
3) Develop a Culture of Innovation: Successful team leaders understand that the answers to the hardest problems are often found within. In Richard Branson’s article Screw the Competition!, he argues that it is an error to maintain an exclusively external focus; "Building an innovative culture requires that you strike a balance, learning from your competitors' mistakes while pushing ahead with ideas of your own." When the leader goes the extra step and explicitly tells the stakeholders that innovation is an expectation, there is a much higher probability that an innovative culture will take root.
4) Determination: Leadership is stressful by its very nature. Team leaders are acutely aware of their responsibilities, explains Tom Marshall, the celebrated leadership expert, and author of Understanding Leadership. They know they are answerable for their work and that they will be held accountable for the results of their policies. For this reason, many people avoid leadership positions, because team building requires constant setbacks and failures. The characteristic of determination is essential to overcome the stress of the process and endure the inevitable failures. In fact, it may be the most essential characteristic of all innovation leaders.
Berkun, S. (2010;). The myths of innovation (1st ed.). Sebastopol: O'Reilly.
Smith, B. L. (2017). A case study of how a leader's communication of organizational vision influences the development of work passion. Grand Canyon University
Oster, G. (2011). The light prize: Perspectives on Christian innovation. Virginia Beach, VA: Positive Signs Media.
Branson, R. (2012). Screw the competition! Canadian Business, 85(21-22), 20.
Marshall, T. (2003) Understanding Leadership. Bakerbooks. MI.