The team leader of the future

Team leader

If work is truly getting more complicated — may or may not be true — then who your team leader is matters a lot. Here’s the problem, though: 82 percent of managerial hires end up being the wrong one. That’s an 8 in 10 failure rate. Uh. Not good. Since most managers are the team leader for a certain team, this is probably something we should care more about. Unfortunately, we often don’t. Executives tend to care about product (or service) and process. People are a distant third “P.” If you don’t believe me, let me give you one clear counter-example. Hiring — i.e. how you acquire people who drive your business forward — is rooted in Human Resources. If executives cared about hiring at all, do you think it would reside in that department? No. Human Resources is treated as a joke by most executives, and has been for decades. Any project coming out of there is much closer to “cover your ass” or “compliance” than “business growth.” You absolutely need to recognize that.

So, this is the first problem: we need to think critically and strategically about the team leader of the future, but … everything around hiring, developing, and training people is “owned” by a department that execs could care less about. That’s not good. Let’s walk through exactly why it’s not good, then try to solve it a bit. Onward!

Team leader of the future: VUCA

VUCA is a term to describe the ongoing business environment. It stands for:

  • Volatility
  • Uncertainty
  • Complexity
  • Ambiguity

In short: stuff is confusing and different. It’s not the same business world that many people “rose up” in.

This is all going to get more complicated in the next couple of years. These concepts below aren’t at scale yet, but they’re rapidly getting there:

  • Virtual reality
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Internet of Things
  • Machine learning
  • Things we haven’t even thought of yet

Think about how many companies have awful websites or social media profiles, right? Websites have been around for decades. Social media is a decade-plus by now. Many companies still haven’t even mastered that stuff. Now toss “artificial intelligence” into that cherry pie. It’s going to be a cluster mess.

The way to navigate through this is with a team leader who “gets” it, or can admit he/she has no clue but is willing to learn and grow. You can gag a farm of horses with all the bullshit articles on Forbes about “mission-first team leader of the future” who “understands digital transformation and disruption inherently.” It’s all absolute garbage. Even if you understand disruption, you fear it and run from it. We’re human beings. We are emotional creatures who want to believe deeply in our own relevance. As long as we ignore that when discussing work, nothing tangible will ever happen. And now … this.

Team leader of the future: The four traits

Here’s an article on the science behind leadership potential. What can we learn about what would make a good team leader? According to this widely-cited meta-analysis (linked in the first article), 53% of variability in a good team leader is explained by four traits. Those traits:

  • Adjusted
  • Sociable
  • Ambitious
  • Curious

Now, let’s combine the last two sections. If you’re working in an ambiguous and volatile business climate, and new things are being created every day, that probably scares you. You want a team leader who is adjusted, right? And you want one who is curious and willing to learn about these new concepts. A sociable team leader would also be good — he/she would talk to you about what’s going on, as opposed to hiding behind e-mail.

The rubber might meet the road on “ambitious,” because having an ambitious team leader is a bit in the “target-chasing” category. Those people tend to be a bit less empathetic and have your back less in the tough times. That’s less than stellar.

The problem with the current team leader model

Much of how we think about business is rooted in execution and expertise, and those notions are long-held. By some measure, they go back to 1911. Henry Ford was competing with horses then, and now we have self-driving cars. But we still have the same approach to what makes a good “team leader.”

The Protestant work ethic and a host of other stuff factors in here, of course. Bosses love heads-down, hit-your-targets, don’t-make-a-fuss stuff. Everyone loves to toss themselves on the cross at The Temple of Busy to increase their own relevance and sense of self-worth. This is how we’ve been working for years and years. For many people, it provides a sense of comfort and even wonder.

But things are changing. Robots are chasing our jobs. Companies with laughable business models 20 years ago are toppling titans. (“Use my car to drive other schlubs around?!?! LOL!”) There’s going to be 80 billion — with a B — connected devices by 2025. Your house might be smarter than your fifth-grader. All this stuff is real.


For this all to work, though, we need to shift how we think about what a team leader is.

What should a team leader be?

Let’s take those four traits above. Here’s what I’ve seen from managers I’ve had — or my friends have had.

  • Adjusted: … or, every new idea is instantly perceived as a threat.
  • Sociable: … or, you speak to me every two weeks when you need something, and only then by email.
  • Ambitious: … or, “you best hit your targets so I can look good to the brass!”
  • Curious: … or, “I have 30 years in this vertical! I trust my gut!”

That’s the issue. For example — most documented research shows that managers could care less about new ideas or self-improvement. But in an era where a lot of stuff is changing (and fast), that’s a bad team leader model.

A better one would be:

  • Legitimately curious
  • Willing to learn
  • Can admit failure
  • Empathetic
  • Conversational
  • Knows where to find information when he/she lacks it
  • Willing to work with and guide you through tough parts

See, if VUCA is real — it is — then we need a team leader model to guide people through VUCA. Right now, most companies lack that. Most front-line leadership, instead of guiding and helping, is mostly just crippling the economy with no-value tasks.

What would you say about the team leader model of the future?

Ted Bauer


  1. all the time ready to learn new things and believe in productive and effective team work, nice article for managers/team leaders and all learners

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