Check out this article on iSixSigma as well.  Thank you to iSixSigma for publishing!


We are all members of teams of one type or another, but have you ever stopped to think about how to lead a team well when you aren’t the boss? There’s a plethora of advice about being a better boss and the like, but how about a team that will only be together for a discrete period of time?

Teams for the Win

For those in the performance improvement world, teams have been the go-to strategy for decades. In the 90s, when process mapping, total quality management and statistical process control approaches were still novel, practitioners knew that teams provided the best way to get all the information, to maximize new ideas, and to help implement those new processes or ideas into the organization.

Who Led Those Teams?

Frequently, these teams were led by someone who was not the boss of the people on the team. This was done for a good reason: if you want to challenge the status quo, then the team has to have a certain reprieve from the normal lines of command and control. To have someone’s boss running a team pretty much guarantees that those members would default to what they believed their boss thought was the right answer.

What does the typical manager or leader have when they have organizational authority? They have control over their people’s pay, performance reviews and job assignments. That is quite a bit of power.

But without all that power, how can one lead? This question was posed to the author by a young post-doc who was put in charge of a team. She wanted her boss to put a name plaque on her door so that the team would know she was in charge – that she was the boss. He didn’t. In exasperation, she asked, “How can I lead if I’m not their boss?”

Leading or Bossing

Leading and bossing are not the same. True leadership serves those it leads. That is why the followership is a natural course. That serving may be in the form of serving up a vision that is worth pursuing, serving as an example or just serving these needs that transform hesitant followers into confident followers.

How Does One Serve?

Take some advice from statistician W. Edwards Deming. He stated that a manager’s job is to enable joy in work. That’s a strange sounding phrase – almost a bit too much like ponies and rainbows. To make this phrase practicable, we need to take a deep look at that word “joy.”

Joy is a not the same as pleasure. Joy is a deep happiness. Pleasure is transient happiness. Pleasure results from things like winning $1 million in the lottery. Joy is the lifelong dedication to saving up $1 million for retirement. Pleasure is an escape. Joy is an engagement. The opposite of pleasure is misery. The opposite of joy is fear.

And there’s the key! A leader’s job is to enable joy. For those who are well-schooled in Deming, one of his 14 points for improving business efficiency includes driving out fear. He later elevated that concept into enabling joy.

Take note: enabling joy does NOT require a position of authority.

It is something that each of us can do for others. However, when one is in a position of leadership and if she or he also has authority, that provides significant leverage in helping to enable joy in work. So, authority is not a requirement, but it can be an amplifier.

What Does It Take to Enable Joy?

How would the typical leader go about this strange sounding concept? The key is to look at the concept of driving out fear. What is the biggest fear for humans? Being alone. Being disconnected.

Step 1: Provide a Connection

To enable joy, a leader has to provide a connection. That connection comes in two critical components:

  1. Connect each team member to each other. As humans, we strive for connections. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has shown that good interpersonal connections (i.e., relationships) are the key ingredient to happy and healthy lives – not genes, lifestyle, money or environment. (This study is the longest longitudinal study ever, spanning 80 years.)
  2. Connect each team member to the purpose. We need to know our purpose. It’s what wakes us up every day. That purpose is the fuel for intrinsic motivation. When each person connects, then that purpose becomes not just inspirational, it becomes aspirational. The purpose isn’t just the spark of the idea, it’s the heat of the idea becoming reality. People want to connect to that transformation.

To enable joy, the leader must enable each team member to connect – to persons and to purpose. That is the sine qua non of joy in work and, therefore, the keystone of leading. No authority needed. Just the stamina to serve others in fulfilling this need.

Step 2: Serve Each Member with a Way to Create Value

When that connection is fulfilled, the leader has to continue enabling joy by serving each member with a way to create value. Humans have a need to connect; at heart we are a creative species. Each person needs to see and be able to create some value in the overall team purpose. That is why good team leaders use team tools, like nominal group technique, process mapping, brainstorming and RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted and informed) charts, to continually emphasize and engender each person creating value.

Step 3: Enable Each Person to Contribute

The last component the leader needs to do to enable joy is to enable each person to contribute.

That’s a cool term that means to bestow (tribute) together. Deming once said, “Joy on the job comes not so much from the result, the product, but from the contribution.” Yes, when we take what’s been done and give it to someone else. This component, contribution, provides a certain return back to the idea of connection. A leader’s job is to break down the barriers that prevent or block that contribution from occurring. That is why bureaucratic organizations, which have years of review cycles before adopting a new process, rob work of joy.

Of the challenges facing the non-boss team leader, enabling contribution is the most difficult. This is where that leader is interacting not just with the team but with the organization or system at large. She or he may be facing factors that, while in his or her sphere of concern, may not be in her or his sphere of control – may not even be in her or his sphere of influence. This is why a good team leader, at the start of any team adventure (especially those in pursuit of improvements that will change the status quo), will solicit the sponsorship of someone with authoritative power. This is frequently called managing up, but no matter what it is called, it is where a team leader needs to serve the team by going and getting whatever power, influence or pressure is needed so that the team will be able to make that contribution.

To put that into the context of our original scenario, the young post-doc didn’t need a plaque on her office door, but she did need to ensure that her boss had her back as she led the team. Not an easy task.


Are you a team leader with a team out to change the status quo, but you are not the boss?

Fear not. Better than that, drive out fear. Even better – enable joy.

How does a team leader enable joy?

Enable each team member to connect to persons and to purpose.

Enable each team member to create value to the purpose and to each other.

Then serve the team by enabling that created value to be contributed by getting the necessary power to blast through the barriers, bureaucracies or bullies that stand in the way.

Go enable joy. It’s your calling as a leader.

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