Leading without borders--or leaders


As a project manager, how effective are you as a leader of high performance teams? Have you considered that leading high performance teams may require dropping traditional methods of leadership? High performance teams in today's fast-paced environments require a different model of leadership. To deliver value to clients quickly and effectively, high performance teams no longer need top-down management. Leadership in a high performance team needs to come from within the team. High performance teams need coaches not managers. High performance teams need bottom-up drive not top-down control.

This paper presents a leadership model that focuses on self-organizing teams and team-directed work management. The project manager in this type of team environment needs to rethink traditional leadership practices. The project manager needs to focus on empowering project teams to higher levels of success possible than in traditional environments. To do this, project managers must think, act, feel, and speak differently.

This paper provides strategies for making the shift from traditional project management to leading self-empowered, self-organizing teams. This presentation supports the premise that leadership without borders or formal leaders will improve the probability of success for the project teams on any project, regardless of complexity, size, or scope. This paper is organized around these seven strategies:

  • Strategy 1: Know Your Team Members—To become effective and more powerful as a leader, you must first get to know your team members. Do you know what motivates your team members? What's on their minds? What are their expectations? The success of your team is determined by your team, not you.
  • Strategy 2: See the Vision—Your project's vision needs to be defined and directed by the client of the team but owned by the team. As a leader, are you helping your team focus on its objectives and empowering your team to adjust and adapt as needed?
  • Strategy 3: Allow Your Team to Self-Organize—Self-organizing teams will provide optimized business value to the client. Self-organizing teams are more adaptive and innovative than traditionally managed teams.
  • Strategy 4: Foster Open Communications—Leaders of high performance self-organizing teams must learn to foster open communications and encourage team members to develop their voices.
  • Strategy 5: Change Incrementally—Make small incremental changes in your leadership style consistently over time to achieve quantum leaps in productivity and agility for yourself and your team.
  • Strategy 6: Address Impediments—Your role as leader on a leaderless self-organizing team is to help address and remove impediments to success.
  • Strategy 7: Develop a Team of Lynchpins—In a high performance team, each team member brings individual value, knowledge and value in achieving the project's objectives. As a leader, your role is to help team members achieve their best performance.

Introduction and Application

“When the situation gets too complex, it's impossible to follow the manual because there is no manual” (Godin, 2010, p. 220).

The traditional approach to team leadership is being redefined through agile project management techniques. As a traditional project manager (and leader), I made a very distinctive shift in my approach to leadership. My approach shifted from being a top-down leader to becoming an “invisible” leader. As an invisible leader in an agile project management environment, my responsibilities shifted from leading, directing, and controlling to teaching, coaching, and facilitating. My initial agile projects used Scrum where I no longer held the title of project manager. I became a Scrum Master and my specific role was to facilitate Scrum processes to ensure project success.

My experiences in becoming an invisible leader in agile projects taught me these several key lessons:

  • High performance teams perform better without top-down direction.
  • To encourage innovation and creativity, the leader needs to get out of the way.
  • Leadership can be a team sport.
  • Self-organizing teams can be more effective than “led” teams.
  • An invisible leader is more effective than traditional leader (but it requires different skills)
  • Be prepared to be surprised by self-organizing teams.

Exhibit 1 summarizes some of the key differences between traditional leadership and invisible leadership.

Traditional leadership vs. invisible leadership
Traditional leadership vs. invisible leadership

Exhibit 1: Traditional leadership vs. invisible leadership.

The remainder of this paper addresses seven strategies to assist in making the shift from traditional top-down leadership to leading without formal borders or leaders. These strategies are critical if you are transitioning from traditional project management to agile project management but they can be used even in a traditional environment.

Strategy 1: Know Your Team Members

“A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle”—Japanese proverb (leadership-with-you.com, n.d.).

How well do you know your team members? Do you know their strengths and weaknesses? Do you take the time to understand them and to understand what motivates them?

Knowing your team members is vital to establishing strong beneficial relationships with them. By taking the time to understand your team members, you can learn to trust them as well as earn the right to be trusted by them. Every individual is, of course, different and is motivated by different factors. The key to building a strong empowered team is to understand the motivational factors for each team member. The motivational factors for an individual new to the team or to the organization may be significantly different than a team member who is established with the team or organization and is respected as a key contributor.

As an invisible leader, knowing your team members becomes even more important as you take on the roles of teacher, facilitator, and coach. Every team member has different development needs. Every team member has a preferred learning style. Every team member needs to be coached differently.

A high performance team will require the following values from each team member:

  • Commitment to the goal of the project;
  • Focus on performing the work of the project;
  • Respect for others on the team;
  • Be “present” (don't just show up, but be a constant and unique presence on the team);
  • Trust in the capabilities of the team and each other; and
  • Authenticity or the courage to be open and frank and to be yourself.

How will each team member embrace each of these values? As an invisible leader, it is your job to invest the time and effort to know your team members. The payback from this investment is a stronger, more effective team.

Strategy 2: See the Vision

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problem.”—Gandhi (Gandhi, n.d.).

Gandhi had great vision and was able to effectively communicate that vision to create significant change. As invisible leaders, we can develop an environment where the team not only develops the vision in concert with the sponsor or owner of the project, but “owns” the vision. When a team owns the vision, it can articulate the vision and becomes practically unstoppable in pursuit of making that vision a reality.

My personal transition from a traditional leader to an invisible leader required that I shift my traditional approach of developing and communicating the vision of the project. Traditionally, I would take the lead in working with the sponsor to develop a project vision and it would become “my job” to communicate that vision to the stakeholders and to the team members. I also took on the job of directing the team to ensure the vision was realized. As an invisible leader, though, my job was now to ensure that the vision was a collaborative effort and became a product of the team.

My role was now to ensure that the team environment was set up to allow the team to “see” better. An added personal bonus was that I often discovered that the team taught me to “see” better. These are some practical techniques to facilitate the vision development process through the team:

  • Ask better questions and teach your team members to ask better questions;
  • Ask “why” often ;
  • Learn to listen and teach your team members to listen;
  • Listen to everyone with a stake in the project;
  • Encourage challenging the conventional or traditional approaches; and
  • Make the effort to teach your team members techniques to harness innovation and creativity.

As a starting point for development of the project vision, you can use Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to ask some key assessment questions. Teach the team the relevance of using a table of questions. Let the team own the process of assessment. Exhibit 2 identifies the five stages of needs from a project perspective:

Project hierarchy of needs

Exhibit 2: Project hierarchy of needs

The most significant benefit from having the team develop the vision as a collaborative effort is that the team will own the vision. As owners of the vision, they will work diligently to ensure the realization of the vision.

Strategy 3: Allow Your Team to Self-Organize

Traditional thinking managers often challenge the concept of self-organizing teams. Traditional thinking assumes that the team needs to be led and directed to accomplish goals and objectives. In my opinion (supported by many other “agilists”), a self-organizing team is often more productive than a traditionally led team. These are just a few of the advantages of self-organizing teams:

  • Communications is enhanced among the team members.
  • Innovation and creativity increase in this type of team environment.
  • Conflict is usually addressed quickly and efficiently.
  • Each team member feels empowered to participate in the decision-making process.
  • The team constantly learns and evolves.
  • Trust and respect for each other increases.
  • The ability to adapt and change improves.

How does a team make the transition from a traditional approach to a self-organizing approach? In his book, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products, Jim Highsmith (2010) wrote “the [self-organizing] strategy establishes the team's approach to communications, coordination, collaboration, decision-making, and other individual-to-individual and team-to-team interactions” (p. 123).

Highsmith suggested that self-organizing teams need to ask questions such as the following (not a complete list and only a sample):

  • “How will we collaborate with customers?”
  • “What does empowerment mean to our team?”
  • “Who needs to talk to whom when?”
  • “How are these people who talk to each other going to make decisions?”
  • “Who is accountable for what?”
  • “What practices are they going to use to facilitate the above?” (Highsmith, 2010, p. 123)

The work of the invisible leader is to facilitate the environment where questions such as these and more can be addressed. The shift for the team members to become self-organizing can sometimes be as challenging as it is for the top-down leader making the transition to becoming an invisible leader. In my experience with Agile project teams, I often found myself teaching and coaching. Vince Lombardi, the great American football coach, once said, “They call it coaching but it is really teaching” (VinceLombardi.com, n.d.).

Strategy 4: Foster Open Communications

“Deep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution – to really matter, to really make a difference” (Covey, 2004, p. 28).

A key factor in becoming an invisible leader is to foster open communications. Team members must feel comfortable in communicating with each other and outside the borders of the project team. In my experience, this is often a challenge in organizations that stress a hierarchical approach to leadership and communications. In most organizations such as these, the power of the leader is the ability to open doors that are not open to the majority of the individuals in an organization.

The invisible leader's challenge, then, is to encourage the team members to find their voices and to express them. This is an ongoing process of continuous improvement that you, as an invisible leader, can help facilitate. These are actions that you can take as a leader to help your team members find their voices:

  • Become the model for your team by finding your own voice;
  • Provide or build an environment that encourages open communications and individual growth;
  • Encourage individual personal development and growth;
  • Recognize individual strengths and talents;
  • Leave room for acceptable failure;
  • Encourage experimentation;
  • Provide constant and relevant feedback;
  • Focus on strengths as a means to minimize weaknesses;
  • Proactively provide opportunities for growth and development.

In my experience, I find myself encouraging open communications with each facilitation opportunity that occurs on a project. As I facilitate any session, whether it be for planning or problem solving, I encourage everyone to voice his or her opinion or openly abstain from making a contribution.

“Ground rules” can be developed by the team to encourage open discussion and communications. As an invisible leader, I may facilitate the development of the “ground rules,” but it is important to ensure that the team feels ownership in the rules and that the team does not feel they were dictated by a leader (even an invisible one). Ground rules should be posted openly and may even be repeated before any open communications session.

Strategy 5: Change Incrementally

“An assumption that there are no limits to improvement is the spur to continuing improvement” (Denning, 2010, p. 205).

The transition from traditional leadership to becoming an invisible leader can be difficult and challenging, both for the leader and the team. Getting there may mean taking many small steps.

The invisible leader should seek continuous improvement through small incremental changes and should encourage the team to also develop through smaller incremental steps. Incremental change consistently over time helps achieve significant leaps in productivity and effectiveness. A common technique in agile project management is to conduct “retrospectives” at the end of an “iteration” or project. These retrospectives can be used to obtain consensus to implement changes in the team environment. The key to achieving productivity gains is to allow change to be sponsored by the team. Retrospectives can be useful in evaluating performance for the purpose of generating immediately implementable change.

The role of an invisible leader is to encourage change and to promote that change is healthy. Traditional thinking often discourages change especially when “status quo” is working. The invisible leader should seek opportunities to teach and coach the concept of changing incrementally. When the team embraces change, this not only fosters growth but innovation, creativity and adaptability.

Strategy 6: Address Impediments

As a team member, the invisible leader can bring direct value to the team by addressing impediments to success. The work of the invisible leader is to extract the impediments from those closest to the work and then either directly take on the task of removing the impediment or coaching other team members through the process of removing the impediments.

One of the techniques of agile project management is to conduct a “stand-up” meeting where only a few specific questions are asked including: “What's in your way?” This becomes an opportunity for each team member to voice impediments. In my experience, the value of the invisible leader increases when “impediments” are immediately addressed. Of course, the invisible leader may not be the right resource to directly resolve the impediment but the leader can seek the right resources to address the issue.

Strategy 7: Develop a Team of Lynchpins

Seth Godin, the author of “Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?,” proposed a list of seven abilities which make an individual indispensible to an organization (Godin, 2010, p. 218):

  1. “Provide a unique interface between members of the organization.”
  2. “Deliver unique creativity.”
  3. “Manage a situation or organization of great complexity.”
  4. “Lead customers.”
  5. “Inspire staff.”
  6. “Provide deep domain knowledge.”
  7. “Possess a unique talent.”

Imagine if every member of a team could exhibit these abilities. What a powerful team! I propose that an invisible leader with these same abilities can coach team members to develop these abilities or to at least aspire to these abilities.

While each team member will develop differently and at a different pace, these seven abilities can become development opportunities. The role of the invisible leader is to identify the development stage of each team member and to coach each member individually to achieve higher levels of competencies in each of these abilities.


In summary, high performance teams in today's fast-paced environment require a different model of leadership. The seven strategies presented in this paper can help the traditional manager make the transition to “invisible” leadership. Invisible leaders in high performance teams encourage leadership and ownership of results from within the team. High performance teams need teachers and coaches not managers. Leadership without borders or formal leaders will improve the probability of success for the project team on any project.

Adkins, L. (2010). Coaching agile teams: A companion for Scrum masters, agile coaches, and project managers in transition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Carroll, N. R. (2010). The communication problem solver: Simple tools and techniques for busy managers. New York, NY: AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Cohn, M. (2006). Agile estimating and planning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Covey, S. (2004). The 8th habit, from effectiveness to greatness. New York, NY: Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Denning, S. (2010) The leader's guide to radical management: Reinventing the workplace for the 21st century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dyer, J., Gregersen, H., & Christensen, C. (2009, December). The innovator's DNA. Retrieved from www.hbr.org

Edison. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com Retrieved from Brainymedia.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/thomas_a_edison.html

Gandhi. (2010). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved from Brainymedia.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/rn/mohandasga150718.html Brainymedia.com

Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable? New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Highsmith, J. (2010). Agile project management: Creating innovative products (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Leadership-with-you-com. (n.d.). Retrieved from leadership-with-you.com Web site: http://www.leadership-with-you.com/team-building-quotes.html

Mersino, A. (2007). Emotional intelligence for project managers: The people skills you need to achieve outstanding results. New York, NY: AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Owen, H. (2008). Open space technology: A user's guide, (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Tracy, B. (2008). Speak to win: How to present with power in any situation. New York, NY: AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Vince Lombardi. (n.d.). VinceLombardi.com. Retrieved from family of Vince Lombardi, c/o Luminary Group. LLC Web site: http://www.vincelombardi.com/quotes.html

© 2012, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseilles, France



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