Giving Up the “One Leader in a Room” Mindset

Roger Schwarz

Do you head up a leadership team in which you feel like you’re doing most of the heavy lifting? If so, you may be suffering from the “one leader in a room” mindset.

As the name implies, when you operate from the “one leader in a room” mindset, you believe there can be only one leader in the room – or on the team – at a time:  the formal team leader.  If the formal leader is you, you alone are responsible for all of the team’s leadership tasks, including identifying the team’s direction and key goals, leading team meetings, and managing challenging work relationships among team members.

When you operate in this mode, you feel like you and your team members are in the same boat. Yet you alone are the boat’s designer, captain, and navigator, while the rest of the crew shows up to row. At some point on the journey you wonder, “Why aren’t they doing more?”

Transparency-accountability-informed-choiceApart from your frustration, what other results does this mindset produce?

Answer:  less team commitment and lower accountability.

  • When your direct reports see you as the sole leader on the team, they see the team as your team, not their team.
  • Because you’re the one generating solutions, they have less ownership of the solutions.
  • Because you’re the one resolving conflicts among team members, the team members don’t have to take accountability for their own actions and work relationships.
  • Because you’re the central leader in all of these situations, you reinforce the idea that other team members need only play a support role. Their focus will be on accountability to you, not to the team. 

If you’re in this “one leader in a room” situation, you may take on more and more of the team’s leadership to compensate for the reluctance of your direct reports to assume leadership roles. Or you may decide to pull back on your leadership, waiting to see if team members step in to fill the vacuum. Both responses exacerbate accountability and commitment problems.

The “one leader in a room” mindset not only leaves you exhausted and the team alienated, it limits the range of potential results for the team and underutilizes team members’ capabilities. Sharing leadership involves having different team members take primary responsibility for captaining and navigating the ship at times, and involves everyone in reacting to storms and shoals and in finding new routes and upgrading technologies for powering the ship beyond rowing.

If you want greater team commitment and accountability, raise the issue with your team. Describe your interest in having a team in which each member shares in the team’s leadership. Describe what you want that to look like and how you think it would create better results for the team. Contrast that picture with how you see the team currently functioning. Then get curious: what are their reactions? Are they interested in taking on leadership roles? Are they interested the results you described? How do they see sharing team leadership contributing to results? How do they see the team currently functioning? What would need to happen for them to take on the shared commitment and accountability you want to see?

When you raise this with the team, you get to the heart of one of the issues that contributes to lower team performance. And you take an important step toward creating the team you need.

Originally Published November 2012