Leadership of Leaders; Not Just a Bigger Team

Team watching and listening to their team-leaderA recent encounter at a client site with one of their leaders who was struggling with promotion to a second tier manager reminded me again of the days of training young officers and NCOs in the military and how the challenge of “leading leaders” isn’t the same as simply leading a bigger team.

 It is, in fact, one of the most fundamental challenges to any leader’s development – and is perhaps the greatest determining factor (once they become an effective leader) of their ability to grow, progress and take on more complex challenges.

Many of us over time learn the basics of small-team leadership – through example, coaching, trial and error, etc.

However – learning the principles and best practices of leadership are just half of the battle – because team building/development are equally important;  the second side of the coin as it were – inseparable from leadership, but a distinct discipline in its own right.

Next Tier

So after learning and practicing the basics – what is the next step in the evolution?

Well, in the business world – these “team leaders” go on to become managers, directors, etc – and start leading more than just single function teams –  leading and managing teams of teams, each with their own leader.

Unfortunately the base leadership and team building skills these newly promoted managers have don’t usually prepare them for the next challenge, as they need to adjust their style and how they give direction.

Leadership of Leaders

As anyone who has ever been “micro-managed” will tell you – all they really want is to be told what their mission or task is, and then be left alone to go do it.

Unfortunately, when most of us get promoted to the next leadership tier, it’s hard to resist the temptation to be the ever present leader – inspecting work, making sure our intentions were understood and ready to lend a hand whenever it’s required.

It’s natural; it’s also a nightmare for your line managers.

You need to adjust your style – and her are a few tips to get you on the right path:

Give Direction; Not Tasks

Your team leaders are just that – leaders.  They are capable of making their own plans and leading their people accordingly.

When you are leading them – make sure you tell them:

  • What your mission/objective is
  • How you intend to achieve it (the major building blocks of that plan)
  • What part of the plan you are going to assign to each Team/Team-Leader
  • Explain how the teams integrate their parts into the overall plan

Remember NOT to assign tasks; assign OBJECTIVES.

Leaders want to be told WHAT to do… not HOW to do it – but you need to be available for questions, suggestions, etc if your team leaders want to come to you.

In the end – its okay (and expected) to have them present their individual plans to you and (if they need to be integrated) the group for review, discussion and approval.

Remember to resist the temptation to do it for them, or to offer too many suggestions unless they are somehow key to your overall plan or integrating with others.  Not only will this ensure that your leaders develop properly by having to solve the problem for themselves, you may just find they have some insights and ideas you hadn’t considered – and may produce an even better plan when everything is integrated.

Don’t Undermine Your Team Leaders

Just as you would have taken exception to an executive going directly to one of your team members and assigning them with a task (unless it was an emergency) – you too now need to respect the chain of command and ensure you don’t bypass your leaders (no point having a leader, if they are just a figurehead and not really in charge).

Always go through your team leader for information, tasks, requests, etc – unless it really is an emergency.

In such situations you would ideally go to a second in command/deputy (ever leader should assign one).  If that’s not possible – then ensure you advise your team leader that you couldn’t find them and went direct (ideally telling the subordinate to also advise their team leader).

Challenge & Correct Out of Earshot

There’s no harm in periodically asking questions of your team leaders about various situations/contingencies and what they may do if they encounter them; it’s all part of examining how thorough their plans are, and can even help you think of situations/scenarios you may not have covered.

However, take care when asking these questions – to do so out of earshot of the team members.

In some cases, where you think your team leader may not have thoroughly planned – you may even want to make it a personal/one-on-one discussion, just to save him or her embarrassment from his peers.

The same is true for corrective guidance.  While its generally bad practice to openly correct someone’s conduct of assess their performance in a public forum (there are some very limited exceptions, but I’ll save that for another article) – its particularly important with your team leaders directly reporting to you.

Not only does it undermine them in front of their people, it can also set a precedent that shows such behaviour in general is acceptable (which it should not be), but it may also leave other leaders worried about bringing problems to you or seeking advice and further guidance lest they be ridiculed.

Remember – even as a leader of leaders – you must set the example for everyone within your organization.

Two Way Feedback

Lastly, be open to appropriate criticism yourself from your team leaders.  Even encourage them to tell you if they are getting enough direction, if they feel you have their back without necessarily standing over them, etc.

You can learn a lot through your team leaders – once you’ve established a sound level of trust (part of your team building) and such communications are done keeping in mind the same rules outlined above – in private.

It’s important to not to take any of this feedback too personally; all of us have ways we can improve our leadership – and what works with one individual or group, won’t necessarily work with others .

Remember – the truth is like a butt-kicking; if you ask for it – you will probably get it – so don’t feel bad when you get what you asked for and learn from it instead.


When moving up to the next tier in leadership – it’s important to remember your roots, and the kinds of guidance and oversight you received (both good and bad) as a junior leader.

Remember to ENABLE your leaders; it’s not just a catch phrase – it really means giving them the information, tools and resources to complete their mission.  It DOES NOT mean doing that mission for them.

If you find that you are having to take over – then you either haven’t broken down your assignments to your teams correctly (giving them too much or too complicated an assignment) or you have the wrong  team leader who isn’t ready or needs more training (perhaps in planning, organization, etc).

Encourage your team leads to take on new assignments and build their own plans (especially if it’s outside of their normal comfort zone).  Turn plan reviews into an opportunity to build your leadership team and encourage cooperation and integration.

Remember:   you aren’t leading a group of minions.  You have junior leaders who are managing and leading teams in their own right.
Respect and develop those leadership skills within them in the same way it was grown in you.

Author: Stephen Holton, PMP, CISSP, SSGB, ITIL, CD

After completing over twelve years service in the Canadian Armed Forces, Stephen moved to private industry where he was employed as a Director of Information Technology, Director of Operations and CIO for a number of private sector companies before finally electing to become an independent consultant in 2000. Since then he’s served as a management consultant, project/program manager and business analyst/solution architect in a number of industries and organizations - including a big-5 consulting firm. These industries and organizations have included the airline, railway, telecommunications and banking industries, the Canadian and US Governments, as well as mandates in Brazil and Bermuda. Presently Steve lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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