by Tudor Rickards
Belbin team role theory had found widespread practical applications for diagnosing and influencing team behaviours. Yet its implications for team leadership have been widely ignored
Background provided from the University of Coventry confirms that Dr Belbin [b 1926] is a graduate of Clare College Cambridge and that among his academic positions he has held a visiting Professor in leadership at the University of Exeter. His team role theory can be traced to his seminal work , Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail.
The Perfect team?
An influential historic article was by journalist Anthony Jay, who pointed up the core concept that a team needs members capable and willing to carry out the identified roles. The salient features of Jay’s article has more been recently  republished. It covers the essential features of the team roles, and supplies the factor analysis associated with role preferences as:
 intelligence;  dominance;  extroversion/introversion; and  stability/anxiety.
Cognitive psychologists will recognise the connection with various classifications of psychological traits (although Belbin has always emphasised that the roles are preferred rather than innately fixed behaviour patterns).
Team role labels
The labels are not totally self-explanatory, and have changed somewhat over time. One simplification is into four roles with a focus outside the team, and four which are more internally-focussed. I will use the older terminology for consistence with materials cited below. More recent labels include Coordinator for Chairman.
Completer or finisher
Team Roles and Leadership theory
The outward facing roles anticipate much later leadership theories of distributed leadership.
‘Chairman’ is one of those slightly misleading titles, since he [or she] may well not be the leader of his team; nevertheless, it is team leadership that he is best fitted for. His early contributions are morelikely to take the forms of questions than assertions or proposals. He listens, sums up group feelings and articulates group verdicts, and if a decision has to be taken, takes it firmly after everyone has had their say.
The Shaper exudes self-confidence, which often belies strong self-doubts. Only results can reassure him. His drive, which has a compulsive quality, is always directed at his objectives. They are usually the team’s objectives too, but the Shaper, much more than the Chairman, sees the team as an extension of his own ego.
Some researchers have suggested that a team needs a ‘social’ leader, who is the permanent head of the group, and a separate ‘task’ leader who is in charge of a specific and defined project – much in the way that a nation needs both a Head of State, who is permanent, and a Head of Government, with a specific job to do. If so, the Shaper is the task leader and the Chairman is the social leader. The Shaper is the most likely to be the actual leader of a team both in cases where there is no Chairman, or where the Chairman is not, in fact, the leader.
Belbin’s work overlaps with notions of distributed leadership emerged. Jay wrote that“nobody’s perfect but a team may be”. Manz and Sims wrote of a team acting as a “superleader” with shared responsibilities for the various challenges facing it.
The Plant and Creative Leadership
Another outward focussed role is that of a Plant. Early work deliberately ‘planted’ a creativer individualo in a team to enhance its creative outputs. More recent work suggests that creativity is strongly associated with leadership. Here again, Belbin’s work suggests its implications for leadership research.
More research needed
Belbin’s team role theory has been seriously ignored by leadership authors. There is a considerable opportunity for valuable research in this area with practical implications.
The post was triggered by discussions recently with Manchester Business School Worldwide tutors. I am particularly grateful to contributions from Dr Richard Common, Susan Moger, Leigh Wharton, Stephen Parry and Louise Pinfold