Can A Team Succeed Without A Good Leader?

By | November 8, 2013

June 2009


The first and immediate response to this question is usually “No.” However, there are some situations in which a team may experience success on a regular basis even though the team leader is regarded as “not the best.” How can this be? At least six factors can make this possible, whether prevailing alone or in concert with other factors.

Factors That May Allow for Success Without a Good Leader

  1. Most or all of the team members like the leader as a person, while knowing that the head of the team is struggling to be a real leader, makes bad decisions from time to time, or has other shortcomings as a leader. (Caveat: This does not mean that a team leader should go out of his or her way to ingratiate himself or herself with team members by frequently catering to them, showing favors or by other means. This item pertains to a team leader whose conduct, consistency, personality, fairness and related factors earn him or her loyalty and respect from the team.)
  2. Team members have the maturity to do their jobs as they are supposed to be done, recognizing that they are there to do their jobs as responsible adults.
  3. Team members are in a situation in which they are operating on an incentive basis for quality performance and they are motivated by the nature of the incentive(s) (e.g., special perks, financial bonuses).
  4.  Team members fear job loss if they perform poorly, and therefore perform well to keep their jobs.
  5. Team members have internalized organizational goals as their own because of their passion for the organization; their passion for their jobs; because of excellent training; because of their awareness and assurance of the consistent, pro-active stance of organizational leadership; or some combination of these or related factors.
  6. Team members feel “led” and free to do well, rather than “controlled” and constrained by micro-management, a practice that is typical of (insecure) control-oriented people.

Other considerations could prevail in addition to those listed above, but the foregoing illustrates situations in which team success can occur in spite of who the team leader is or how that person functions as a “leader.”

Can A Team Succeed Without Harmonious Working Relationships Among Team Members?

Calling a group of people together and then telling that group that “You are going to be a team….” does not necessarily result in having a “team” that works together well. Obviously, selecting the right people, proper training and time are required for this – at a minimum.

It is possible to assemble a group of people who are friends and who get along well socially, but who still don’t operate as a team on the work floor. Why? Each member has a different attitude toward work, the company and personal responsibility, based upon a host of background factors. Members will vary in confidence levels, competency levels, efficiency, work quality, cognitive skills, technical skills and more. They will also vary in the amount and types of “baggage” (negative factors that can affect attitude, performance and work relationships) that they bring to the job from childhood and adult personal experiences, and from other jobs that they have held.

Without addressing the foregoing factors for the moment, how critical to team success is the existence of harmonious relationships among team members? Can a team meet or exceed team goals without harmonious relationships existing among most of the team members? Yes.

It would seem that, if enough people on the team have enough individual maturity and if enough people on that team have sufficiently perceived the benefits to be realized from achieving team goals, along with other factors noted in the previous section, the lack of harmonious relationships may not be an impediment to team success. These considerations contain the implicit assumption that other requisite skills are available to complete team tasks at an acceptable level of quantity and quality and on a timely basis.

Attempts to force team members to “get along with each other” can end up being counterproductive to team efforts and achievements. The strength of the resentment against this may reduce cooperation among individuals and damage relationships between supervisory and subordinate personnel. This will undermine the potential for team success. “Getting along” is not nearly as important as “getting the job done.”

If team members can look beyond personal differences among themselves and between themselves and the team leader, they can still experience success as a team – even without harmonious working relationships among them and without everyone on the team having to feel “teamy” or “huggy” to get the job done.

Who’s To Blame When Teams Fail?

Team failures are not always or necessarily the fault of the team leader. The major “tools” of a team leader are the members of the team. If these people were not screened adequately for their qualifications (including attitudes); if they were not adequately trained; if they were not given the necessary other means to do their jobs (and other negative factors that could be named), the team leader has been handicapped in advance. For example, no team leader can pull higher levels of cognitive skills out of people than what they have.

Secondly, most testing of job candidates to determine job qualifications and competency do not measure attitudes toward work in general, attitudes toward

performing tasks in a structured environment, individual maturity and responsibility, and related factors that are critical to individual and team success on the work floor. These things must be determined largely by a review of prior work history and responsibilities, and by proper interviewing and the right interpretation of the results.

Thirdly, if top company leadership becomes excessively (or obsessively) concerned with “balance” in the work force (i.e., “balancing” genders, age groups, races, geographical origins of job applicants, education levels, education backgrounds – among other things), and does not give sufficient consideration to the work qualifications and attitudes of the potential employees, it may undermine the possibilities for team successes and, consequently, affect the bottom line.

If a team leader has been given the opportunity to select his or her own team and to train that team, then it would seem that the team leader can be held to a higher level of responsibility for team success or failure.

What If The Team Approach Does Not Work?

If – for reasons known, partially known or not known at all – the team approach is not working, the team leader may decide to abandon the team approach temporarily and do whatever is deemed necessary to meet a deadline.
This could include bringing people in from other teams on a temporary basis; authorizing overtime; and outsourcing certain elements of a project.  It could also include suspending normal working relationships and reallocating work within the team.

As soon as one or more of the foregoing is done (if, in fact, any of these things is done), the importance of the “team” concept in the eyes of the members of the team may be demeaned forever, and especially if this occurs more than once as a last-minute measure to avoid impending failure.  If that is the case, it may be time to retrain the team leader; replace that person; retrain team members; and/or change the make-up of the team.


All team members do not have to be “huggy-happy” with each other in order for a team to achieve or exceed its objectives.  Team members may perform well because of good attitudes toward accepting responsibility, because they like their leader, because they have incentives to do well, because they fear job loss, and possibly because they have internalized company goals and they feel unhindered in their jobs.

Company leaders can sometimes undermine team success in advance by shortcomings in recruiting, screening job candidates, reference-checking, orientation, training and the selection of team members.

If the team approach does not work, companies will have to incur additional costs to make up for this, and, in the process, they may undermine the value of the team approach to achieving objectives.  In some cases, the team leader may have to be replaced, the team make-up may have to be changed, or both.