Leadership Styles through the Team Stages

by Geof Lory

If you have done work with project, sports or church teams, you have probably heard the phrase, "Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing" to describe the different stages a group goes through on its way to becoming a high performing team. From my experience, every team and its members go through these stages before reaching their potential.

How does a team move itself through these stages? It doesn't just happen, that's for sure!

To keep the team on track and moving from one stage to the next, some level of leadership, either from within or outside the immediate team, is required. If this leadership is absent, the work group may become effective, but will never reach its potential as a team. If you have been fortunate enough to experience a high performing team, the difference is substantial, not only in what the team produces, but also the personal rewards each member feels being part of that team.

Often when we speak of leadership we think of only the "out in front of the pack" type of activities: setting a vision or knowing the market. Unfortunately, we see it as something that someone else does, particularly someone higher up in the organization. The reality is, leadership is required at all levels, and no one has an exclusive right to it. The underlying activities of leadership are shared by all people from corporate CEOs to mailroom clerks. Leadership it is a state of mind followed by similar practices and is not defined by one's title.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge, present five basic practices of all exemplary leaders:
  • Inspiring a shared vision
  • Challenging the process
  • Enabling others to act
  • Modeling the way
  • Encouraging the heart
We can probably recall times when we witnessed these leadership practices or even exhibited them ourselves. Unfortunately, we have also seen when they were needed and we or others were unable or unwilling to step up and take a leadership role. Kouzes and Posner conclude that leadership is not a mystical quality, but a pattern of behavior that anyone can use to create extraordinary results. As simple as these practices are, they are not easy to practice with discipline.

It is difficult to disagree with any of the five practices. However, when it comes to how the practice is put into action, a tremendous amount of variance is possible, based on the situation. The specifics of how these leadership practices are conveyed and what causes the variances by situation was explored by Dr. Paul Hersey from the Center for Leadership Studies. His research and current work emphasizes that leadership is situational and varies based on the readiness of the team and its members.

Dr. Hersey's main principle, Situational Leadership, breaks the leadership practice into three widely accepted leadership styles: autocratic, participative and laissez-faire. At a simplistic level, we can relate the readiness of the team to the various stages of team formation: forming, storming, norming and performing. When we combine the leadership styles and the team stages (See Figure 1), a natural application of the Situational Leadership model can apply to the four stages of team development.

Figure 1

Why is this important and how does it relate to project management and parenthood?

As project managers, we are ideally positioned to provide the necessary leadership to create high performing teams. High performing teams have higher productivity, more fun and deliver more for less in less time. Sound like a familiar squeeze play? High performing teams are the answer to today's increasing demand to do it better, cheaper and faster (and enjoy our jobs at the same time). Unfortunately, few organizations are deliberately taking steps to create the leadership skills necessary to create high performing teams. They assume people will just naturally arise to the occasion. That leaves a lot of the potential of an organization to chance.

For those of us with children, an opportunity exists to groom our situational leadership skills at home. Children and families, like work groups, move through the same maturation stages as teams and co-workers. Their readiness in each situation will determine the leadership style you practice. In their personal development, children go through forming (age 0-12), storming (age 9-16), norming (age 13-21) and performing (age 18+) at an individual and family or social level. Our challenge as parents and leaders is to recognize the readiness in each situation, because it can vary substantially, and apply the style that helps move the child or team to higher levels of maturity.

To further complicate the leadership challenge, we all have a natural preference to one of the three leadership styles. If we were to only employ our natural style, regardless of the readiness of our children or teams, our results would be less than effective. Staying conscious and open to the changing and sometimes inexplicable maturity levels will allow for accurate assessment of readiness and the ability to apply the appropriate leadership for the situation. Yes, people, especially children, are unpredictable!

My daughters are at an age where I would hope most situations call for a participative or even laissez-faire approach, although that is not always true. My natural style is autocratic, as is my wife, Beth's, however we have worked hard during the last 12 years to nurture a more participative and even laissez-faire style, in anticipation of these transitional teenage years. The participative style is still the most difficult for us to exercise because it takes more time and feels circuitous, and we are both fairly urgent (Beth would say impatient), people. However, we know it is the most important style during the transition to adulthood, so we continue to look for ways in which we might be holding on to old autocratic behaviors that deter our girls' development.

Over the years I have tried to remain conscious enough to understand and assess the readiness of my daughters, and when to try and get out of the way of their growth. I apply that same approach with the companies I consult with. For example, with one client where we were setting up a Project Management Office, we chose to implement process and procedure changes to project practices using a mixture of the different leadership styles, but focusing primarily on the participative style. This takes a lot more time to execute, much to the displeasure of higher management, but creates ownership and decreases the adoption time. It also requires a group of project managers whose maturity, competencies and readiness allow for this style. At other companies, this approach may not have worked.

I have had many opportunities to understand situational leadership both at work and at home. In next month's article I will go through some of these stories and hopefully they will strike a familiar chord and heighten your awareness and increase your leadership capabilities.

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