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An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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Week 3: Leading teams and partnerships


A group of five medical personnel engaged in lively discussion and looking at a tablet.
Figure 1

Leadership is rarely about the single heroic leader (although that can sometimes be important). Often it involves leading and energising a team, and encouraging others to ‘follow’ you as leader or join you in some purpose or task.

Sometimes leadership is not undertaken by a single individual but shared across several people in different roles, or it is distributed across a team. This may require careful thinking about roles and the work to be done. Leadership may at times require influencing a partnership ‘team’ where you don’t have line-management authority over those you have to lead. Sometimes you may need to lead the public, helping them to think through difficult issues and choices.

Your leadership will be helped by understanding the dynamics of cooperation and conflict between people who may be collaborators, rivals or opponents, and by understanding the contexts in which these interactions sometimes take place. Teams and partnerships are particularly valuable where there are complex problems to deal with or where novel solutions have to be found which require imagination and creativity.

Teams come in many shapes and sizes. They occur in cabinet government, in sections and departments in public service organisations, in a two-person team in a police response car, in a working party set up to tackle a particular public problem, or in a campaigning organisation. Some people will be members of several different teams. So what makes a team? Psychologists have suggested that a team has a number of features:

  • There is a common task being undertaken. Team members share responsibility for outcomes from the team.
  • There is a common identity. The members know who is in the team and who is outside the team.
  • Roles in the team are varied. Members provide something distinctive to the team.
  • Team members have some discretion over how they do their work (they may work out together some elements of how they share the work to produce team goals).

Richard Hackman (2002), a psychologist at Harvard, has studied teams for many years, and has crystallised what distinguishes an effective from a less effective team:

  • The team produces high quality outputs. Whether those are decisions, services or products, a high-performing team is mainly successful in its work.
  • The team nurtures the well-being of the members of the team. They appreciate, respect and help each other, and motivate each other.
  • The team, as a unit, is able to reflect on what it does and to learn from successes and failures so that team members continuously improve.

Academic research has shown that leadership of small teams involves paying attention to the task (‘what we are trying to produce’) and the process (‘how we are getting on together as a team’). However, a leader also has to do more than this. Research shows that successful leaders of teams spend quite a bit of time managing the context in which their team works (for example, managing upwards, or managing outwards to supply resources or remove obstacles, and championing the team in other settings).

In small and stable teams, leadership involves regular interactions between the leader and the ‘followers’. But is following actually the right language to describe some of the leadership processes in such teams? There may be others in the group who have expertise, skill or charisma, who are recognised by others as authoritative in the group, and who may lead without a formal position.

In addition, in small groups it has been found that a leader is influential to the extent that they fit the expected set of behaviours and perceived character of a ‘typical’ member of the group. Those who fit the social norms of the group are more accepted as leaders than those who are more atypical, however skilled they are. This suggests that leadership is not just about the qualities of the leader but is concerned with social norms about what is acceptable in a particular team. It is the implicit leadership assumptions held by team members that shape how acceptable a leader is or how much influence they might wield. However, leaders can come from very different backgrounds or sets of assumptions – so long as they can convince the group that their basic values are similar at some level.