Leadership Styles and Performing Teams

One of the subjects I’m most passionate about is the application of leadership techniques to maximise the effectiveness of teams and especially the effectiveness of technology professionals and architects.

Out of the various leaderships styles my preferred approach is known as Transformational Leadership.

Studies have demonstrated that effective leadership directly and substantially impacts the performance of not just the team, but the individual and ultimately the organisational.

In my current area of specialty, Architecture and Strategy, a presentation at a Gartner summit indicated that picking the wrong lead architect to run an Enterprise Architecture practice was identified as the single biggest problem for Enterprise Architecture teams.

When I have met with CTO’s and CIO’s within my network I have found this goes further in Australia and some EA functions are simply “managed” by good resource managers treating EA more as a resource rather than a core strategic business capability. It’s no wonder to me that value of these teams gets questioned by the business.

Frequently you will note that those establishing organisational structures often assumed that managers are leaders. They do not see the leadership role as different even though managers do not automatically have good leadership qualities.

To complicate matters, given there are various leadership styles, even if a manager does have attributes of a leader, the approach they use can significantly impact the outcome.

Styles of leadership include the following:

  • Transformational leadership
  • Transactional leadership
  • Servant leadership
  • Autocratic leadership
  • Laissez-faire leadership
  • Democratic leadership
  • Bureaucratic leadership
  • Charismatic leadership

Transformational Leadership is now widely believed to be the most effective leadership style from my research.

So what is Transformational Leadership?

Quite simply its adapting the old saying “lead by example” into the core of your approach.

More specifically the style requires the leader to both inspire and motivate others around them to achieve their best. The style can be broken down into 4 focus areas:

  • Inspiration
  • Idealisation
  • Intellectual Stimulation
  • Individual Consideration


This requires the leader to demonstrate, by example, the existence of a greater plan and something to aim for. Typically they will create a vision / mission and establish values or do other actions that will create a sense of meaning and challenge. In my experience it really pays to have a deep understanding of your team and their value and not just be a manager looking to run any team.


This is mostly about being a role model. The focus is on generating respect and trust, making the team want to go with them on the journey. It can be built either by showing that the leader has a code (e.g. ethically principled) and the leader can achieve results and / or by showing they really know your stuff. I tend to find this is something that has to be done early, engage the team is a deep problem and show how its solved or actively remove a problem impeding their performance from their world and demonstrate this is what your about. Sadly trustworthy leaders is not as common as I would like. Many managers are great corporate politicians and therefore often are not trusted by their teams. Whilst it may be necessary to play the game while managing upwards, playing politics with your team destroys trust.

Intellectual stimulation

Understand and appreciate that the team is smart, everyone has something to contribute so the leader must not take away their ability to use their heads and participate in the outcome while thinking actively without fear. This is an area I see misunderstood sometimes with claims that intellectual stimulation is about letting them work through the problem themselves on their own. Whilst this is can be important I don’t see it as a key aspect and I believe it can be counter productive if people are isolated in their problem solving. I find opening up the work for criticism and robust debate allows team members to shape the ideas as they are formed, however shy team players may need some support on this. That said once decisions are made I don’t tend to allow revisiting without a good reason otherwise the approach can become inefficient.

Individual Consideration  

Google has recently shown that teams made of out “less talented” people can outperform talented teams if they the spirit of cooperation is strong enough that all team member are actively engaged. e.g. just like an engine with all cylinders firing in concert versus a more powerful engine with its firing sequence misaligned.

Individual consideration is by FAR the one I see most abused by managers in virtually every organisation I have worked in or with. This key criteria is about understanding a persons personal motivation and being genuinely concerned for their needs, then actually incorporating that into the overall plan. I have read other definitions that state its about using their strengths and weaknesses but I consider this wrong and possibly the cause of many managers failing at Transformational Leadership.  A persons weaknesses are usually transient things. When a person knows they have a weakness they will either deny / not see it or they generally will seek to remove it. It is the latter that offers opportunity as it provides motivation where as focusing on using only a persons strengths provides boredom.

Similarly listening to staff to understand their motivation and need is not the only tool here. Listening is (or should always be) an active skill and requires deductive reasoning and a two way street approach. The leader has to ask questions to draw out the individuals concerns. So many times I see leaders oblivious that their own team hates them with a passion because all they do is passively listen usually in a formal setting. If they just once asked “what do you think of me and I won’t fire you for being honest” their world would change very quickly.

Need a example? Ok say you have a team of developers and they are sick of taking shortcuts and rushing code out. They may also be getting tired of the repetitious job and knowing their contracts are up soon. By asking them what they would like to achieve personally one might say they want to learn a new test framework (possibly automated testing which could be a “current” weakness of both the person or project). In this case a Transformation Leader see an opportunity, factor in a new testing framework to improve quality output and assign the work the person that is most interested in it. Note they don’t just hand that responsibility over, it will come with strings attached (e.g. deliver a real success) and in my experience the team members will meet those goals with ease if the leader has hit the nail on the head in understanding their personal motivation.

A highly functioning teams goals can often conflict with aspects of a projects goals because where a classical project manager might only want “on time”, “on budget” projects meeting “minimum scope” with little fuss. A highly functioning team is thinking about the organisation and not just about their day job or one project. As a leader you must be able to establish longer term objectives for the team.

Ideas here are setting new team targets such as lowering the rate of defects (reducing average over several projects), creating new tools, leveraging or learning new techniques and so on. In the strategy & architecture space these may be less tangible than “defect rates” but still possible to define. Those targets can and should often link to personal motivations that are common in the team. Also don’t be scared to have that vision result in CV worthy material, the paradox of keeping staff happy is also to make them feel the job they are doing is making them more employable!

A final thought. A leader does not need to be manager. A leader could be a formal role such as team leader or it could be an informal role. This in itself isn’t critical as long as those in “authority” recognise who is leading and ensure they are fully supported. Managers should not feel their egos are being bruised by this and recognise that even an informal leader can help them separate the conflicting duties of time/budget/scope issues with the team health.

If you believe Transformational Leadership is for you be cautious of organisations that see people are capital and not a key part of the business. They are not a good place to start such a journey! I’m very thankful to CGU Insurance for many years ago allowing me to develop my skills in this area and that was only possible because of excellent senior leadership and a recognition of the value of the people that helped them build their technology capabilities.