But leadership IS a team role …

Employers are increasingly valuing team players over leaders, says a futurologist. But where does that leave team leadership? We look at the claim from a research perspective

In a BBC interview, BT Futorologist Ian Pearson says that employers are recognizing the virtues of interpersonal skills (sometimes called soft skills, and as a differentiator between masculine and feminine behavioral styles).
The impression left by the article, is that team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers. Also, that women are better team-players, and therefore also more valued by employers than are men. The arguments leading to such conclusions need a bit more examination.

The situation seems to have been reduced to some either-or propositions, such as ‘we either have to chose good leaders or good team players’. It also implies that there is a universalistic recipe out there. If a century of research into leadership has revealed anything, it is the absence of a theory of leadership that provides universal propositions. In other words, we might wish to study the hypothesis

H: team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers

[Or the form preferred in many research methods courses
H: team players are not becoming more valued than leaders by employers]

Either hypothesis when put to empirical testing will quickly be shown to be highly context dependent. At which stage, the researchers begin to mutter about ceterus paribus , or contingent variables, or in everyday terms ‘other things being equal; or ‘it all depends’ . Unfortunately, empirical research catches popular headlines more easily if it can be reduced to a simple statement. We have to work at the proposal to sort out the factors behind he assumptions. So let’s do a little more work on it.

Are team workers becoming more favoured over leaders by employers?

Yup, you guessed it – it all depends. It depends on what the statement means by leaders, team workers, and even (less ambiguously) by employers. It depends on the sorts of employment, and the sorts of team task. As stated, the issue can be tested. Are employers placing team working skills above leadership skills in making their selection and recruitment decisions? Has that become standard practice in BT, to take the specific case with which Professor Pearson is particularly familiar? What is the evidence that the same applies to other private sector organizations in our global marketplace?

For what it’s worth

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think is going on, and what sense I can make of it.
First, long-held views of leaders and followers have come under some scrutiny. The old ideas was that leader took the decisions, the followers carried them out. ‘Good’ followers ‘obeyed orders’, but you can see where I’m going there. More recently, this view lead to tricky dilemmas of leadership which have not gone away.

Among the most promising of attempts to deal with the dilemma of ‘followership’ was the search for methods of power-sharing, so that followers all had status differentials removed, and all became members of the same team. (I know a very large organization that actually banned the word ‘manager’ in the height of enthusiasm for a team-based approach). With empowerment came motivation, and the end of the economist’s bane, the economic free-rider. From that perspective it was an easy step to develop the idea of distributed leadership.

But what happens to the ‘old style leader’. This is where I think I can make common cause with the Pearson thesis. The weaknesses of the old style leader have been rumbled. The special one has to become a special team player. More than ever, in team work, the leader is nor more, and no less than a team player. And as such, the team player needs those desirable soft skills.

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