Paul Walker
September 11, 2023
min read
Management & Governance

Leadership in Self-Organized Teams

Leadership. It is arguably the most impactful aspect of any organization and we have been searching for the answer to what makes a good lead since the dawn of the modern workplace.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all answer for how to lead, but through decades of studies and surveys, we have more insight than ever before into what it takes to lead and how people like to be led.

This concept of leadership and management is often believed to be even more complex and confusing in organizations striving for self-management. I mean, even the name "self-management" can imply that managers are no longer necessary.

To that end, this article will address some of the misconceptions around leadership in a Teal organization and a breakdown of the different types of leadership.


Managers are obsolete.

This is an incorrect and dangerous assumption for several reasons. First, it makes current managers fear for their jobs and feel unwanted in the new Teal paradigm. Instead, let them know that job positions and the needs of leadership may be changing, but they as people are still valued in the company. Many managers have decades with of knowledge, skills, and experience. It's important you let them know they are still wanted and their wisdom is invaluable. Even if their title changes, the company still benefits from having them be a member of the team. Make sure they know that!

Second, the vast majority of Teal structures still have some form of hierarchy. Managers may now be called Lead Links, Team Leads, or Purpose Drivers, or anything else. However, if they are in charge of a team of people and make some of the decisions traditionally made by a manager, many employees will still look at that person as a manager but with a different title. Don't make "manager" a taboo word that people aren't allowed to say. Instead, call it like it is. Admit that this new position has a lot of similarities to a manager, but there are a few key differences that hopefully make life better for everyone. Accept criticism and be open to dialogue. It may reveal that your "non-managers" are far more manager-like than you want.

Teal leaders are hands-off.

Many companies first getting into self-management make the mistake of demanding all their leaders be more hands off. In some practices, there exists a concept of "leaders should only spend X% of their time being a leader." There is a false assumption that self-management means everyone needs to manage themselves. Instead, the focus should be on the fact that everyone needs and wants a very different type of leadership. These different types of leaders will be discussed in more detail below. Just know this - However you were leading before, if work got done and the team was happy, keep doing it.

Types of Leaders

While there are infinite combinations of ideal leadership qualities based on any given situation, they can be broadly lumped into one of three categories.

Hands off.

These are the leaders who say, "I trust you.", then leave for half the day to work on other things. They give their team members 100% autonomy and will back whatever decisions they make.

Pros: This type of leadership is great for those who are self-drivers and thrive on autonomy. They are ideal for the employees who say, "Tell me what you need, then never bring it up again unless I need coaching. I'll take care of it."

Cons: Being hands off means you may be less aware of what's happening on the team and will be less involved with the individual team members. Relationships may not be as strong as they are with other types of leadership. Additionally, not all team members like a hands off leader. If they have questions or need help and you aren't around, it is harmful to them and the productivity of the team.

Heavily involved.

The opposite of the above, these leaders have their hands in nearly every aspect of the work. This is sometimes called "micromanaging". Rarely out of malevolence or ill-intent, it is usually a matter of a manager who has been given strict expectations by their own manager and want to make sure everything gets done as needed. Additionally, this can come from someone who has great ideas and thinks the final result is more important than how we get there (and how everyone is treated along the way).

Pros: Despite how the term "micromanage" normally makes us feel, these types of leaders are beneficial at times. They can be especially good at delegating, project management, and keeping time constraints in mind. For that reason, if a project needs to be done in a very specific way or the deadline is a time crunch, a more controlling solution is sometimes the only feasible approach. Additionally, some people like constant feedback, good and bad, and these types of managers are more aware of the day-to-day work than anyone, so they can provide valuable feedback. Of course, there is a difference between delegating and facilitating the work and needlessly micromanaging employees.

Cons: Many people are not fans of this type of leadership because it leaves the least room for autonomy, flexibility, and unique solutions. The work can feel much more like following orders to check off a to-do list rather than having to actively think about work and being creative. Additionally, the nature of being more hands-on can easily cross the boundary from "involved" to "micromanaging".

Middle ground.

The commonly ideal leader, this person finds the balance between too hands off and too hands on. They feel like part of a team because they are there as a resource and help make sure the work gets done on time, but puts trust in their people and lets individuals creatively add their own work into the final product.

Pros. The majority of people look for this balance. When it doubt, try to be somewhere in the middle and it is likely to benefit the most number of people.

Cons. There are no inherent cons to this type of leadership, but it's also the most difficult to get right. Nobody is perfect, so you risk being either too hands off or too hands on depending on how far you lean in either direction. It's hard work to get it right. Nobody is perfect, so all you can do is try your best!

The "Right" Way To Lead

If you're wondering what type of leader you are, what type your team needs, or what's best for your organization, you aren't alone. Thankfully, the answer is simple!

Everyone benefits from a different type of leadership.

Not sure what each person needs? Ask them! Sit them down one-on-one and ask what their ideal working conditions are. Do they want constant feedback or need a lot of daily help? Do they just want you to tell them what the end goal is and then be allowed to do whatever they need to in order to get there? They will tell you how they work best and you should do your best to adjust your leadership style to fit their needs.

This does not mean that everyone gets what they want regardless of how they are performing. For example, as long as I am meeting my expectations, my leader should be as hands off as I want them to be. However, if I am not meeting my expectations, it may be necessary for my leader to be more hands on to help me get back on track. Once I am performing as required again, my leader can once more go back to being hands off.

Universal Leadership Responsibilities

Despite the many forms of leadership out there and when each is appropriate, there are a few things you should always be aiming for.

Set clear expectations.

No matter how much autonomy a team needs, autonomy isn't possible without knowing where the boundaries are and what is needed of each person. Setting clear expectations gives people confidence to know what they need to do and gives them the freedom to do that work in whatever way they think is best.

Be a servant leader.

Put your people first. You work for them, not the other way around. By acting as a resource rather than a ruler, you will earn the respect, trust, and loyalty of your team. This will result in harder and more creative work than you would ever get from barking orders.

Revolutionize your way of working now!