Leaderful teams: when the leader is not (just) one anymore
Organization and culture
We live in a fluid, overly fragmented reality. Does it still make sense to talk about having a leader?
We strongly believe that there can’t be just one type of leadership suitable for every kind of organization: it must adapt, influenced by the context in which it operates.
And so, once it became clear that our organization has an “expiration date” and is constantly changing and evolving, we started to look out for the best kind of leadership we could implement.
Our inbox was full of questions on how to “become a leader”, “recognize a leader”, or “be a better leader” — but we could not find a single mention of followers.
It might sound trivial, but this revelation led us to think how, to us, leaders and followers are actually two sides of the same coin. As it turns out, one of the most critical aspects of leadership is being able to recognize both when it is time to be a leader and when the circumstances demand that we be a good follower.
This was indeed a revelatory insight, but we encourage you to read the whole piece to find out more.
This article’s goal is to explore why leadership is not (just) a matter of leaders and followers anymore, but a matter of teams. That, and all the things a company needs to become truly leaderful.
In the beginning was the leadership
Before getting to ink in our point of view on leadership, we had to sound out dozens of opinions, notes, and theories regarding this much-discussed topic. From the military to philosophy tenures, leadership has been, is, and will always be on everyone’s lips, no matter the context.
“There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.”
In its most traditional sense, a leader is thought of as the person who makes decisions and guides others, as it represents (in theory) the catalyst of all knowledge and skills.
As we know, however, organizations (both simple and complex) are wire fences of information and experiences, and as such, they keep on intertwining indefinitely. They never stand still — especially these days, when change is fast and constant. Only the most adaptive beings survive, and the same goes for organizations.
So how can we expect one person, one leader, to have all the necessary answers? To have everything it takes to make a difference throughout all the changes?
It becomes apparent that the role of the leader must change. Inspiring followers and guiding them toward a common goal is simply not enough. A leader needs to be resonant¹, listen, and be empathetic toward their team.
The organization, in turn, needs to become leaderful², meaning that more leaders need to arise concurrently and give the community direction, exchanging (and not holding for themselves) power and working collaboratively.
In this new way of conceiving leadership (theorized by Joseph A. Raelin in his book “Creating Leaderful Organizations”), decisions are made by whoever is in charge at the given moment.
Our journey has taken us through numerous readings, moments of reflection, field observations, face-offs with monsters, and even some (much) laughter. The outcome was a little compendium, in which we have outlined the nine principles that we believe to be the indispensable enablers of a leaderful team. They are based on both a comprehensive literature review and our own everyday experience.
Our nine principles
1. Leaders are temporary
Everyone can be a leader. Indeed, leaders and followers are interchangeable parts, swapping places in accordance with the given circumstances. This is why modern organizations are made of groups in which multiple leaders coexist, sharing power and operating in harmony.
As a corollary, leadership is necessarily a fixed-term job, and leaders need to know when their time is up. This also means that followers must understand when it is their turn to step up.
2. Stay tuned
It is vital to stay tuned to oneself and, always be aware of one’s surroundings¹. A leader knows who they are: they must be conscious of how they appear to others and how they view themselves, their strengths and weaknesses. They also need to be able to understand the context beyond words, filters, and bias, picking up on all nonverbal cues that fill the airwaves from the outside and that — if properly intercepted — can give us a better idea of what is really happening.
3. Share your knowledge
In organizations where roles are ever more blurred and the balance of things is constantly questioned, it can be tempting to use one’s talent narcissistically. Pandering to this can lead us astray: instead of building an ecosystem that works for everyone, it becomes terrifyingly easy to make things implode.
Internal competition and the instincts that would want us to fight for a leading position need to give way to the sharing of knowledge, skills, and experiences.
4. Make it possible for teams to be extraordinary
The strength of an organization lies mainly in the strength of its teams³. Leaders must train their organization to believe in the power of heterogeneity and unleash its true potential in full. A team leader works to bring out the best in individual members, making their key strengths shine and bundling them in unusual, creative ways if need be. Leaders know how to recognize people’s skills and attitudes and the way they can be mixed and matched, much like an orchestra leader. Leaders don’t know everything, are not afraid to admit it, and have no problem surrounding themselves with people who can be better than them.
5. Let information flow
Human beings are instinctively led to defend themselves from external threats. However, if we think of organizations as ecosystems, we realize that threats can also come from within. Leaders can put out these fires, small and big, establishing a culture founded on transparency and the free flow of information, among other things. This is critical to establishing trust at the core of an organization that wants to then spread out into a full-blown ecosystem where responsibility is shared and everyone is allowed to make decisions. An environment where integrity is not questioned, precisely because everyone has access to all the necessary information. A “Circle of Safety”⁴ in which people can spend their time focused on what actually matters and not looking behind their shoulders. Everyone needs to contribute and make sure that the ecosystem keeps on living (and functioning) as intended.
6. Be passionate, not obsessed
Being passionate and doing whatever it takes to be “resonant” can be maddeningly demanding. Many organizations encourage destructive approaches, in which sacrificing oneself for work and being constantly available is seen as a positive leadership trait. This is simply not true. True leaders know when it is time to push and when the moment to slow down comes, to let both the body and the mind breathe and recharge. They understand what Boyatzis and McKee have described as the “Cycle of Sacrifice and Renewal”¹.
Delegating is an option: we can let others help us and even take our place. It is precisely when a leader isn’t around that their work begins to shine.
7. If it creaks, tend to it
Our personal system of values drives many of our decisions, but when we enter a larger organization, our little cog becomes part of a much larger machine it needs to fit like a glove. When someone’s actions and thoughts are openly in conflict with the organization’s, cracks can open. This moment is an opportunity for leaders: it’s when organizations can evolve, reaching out to the depths of the problem’s root and understanding its origin. Using the organization’s own values as a compass, the leader can decide whether to change, adapt, or update them, without necessarily resorting to a change in the personnel⁵.
8. Develop a sense of humor
Knowing how and when to laugh is a trait that distinguishes humans from other living creatures, and it’s necessary to process the worst things that happen to us in our journey. There are moments when wit doesn’t help at all, but leaders know this. They also know how to laugh at themselves and their mistakes to take better care of unforeseen circumstances, foster a sense of camaraderie, and cut distances. A sense of humor goes hand in hand with a sense of opportunity⁶: being reactive, defending themselves and the team to create the necessary space between them and a stressful situation, and letting everyone be humorous can help leaders create a positive, stimulating, enjoyable environment where productivity is all but guaranteed⁷. An environment that is “humorful” as much as it is leaderful.
9. The unknown is welcome
We are not machines! We can’t upgrade from one version to the other without realizing it. Indeed, it’s in the very moment of passage between states that the most interesting things happen (puberty, anyone?). In this liminal space between states lies the unknown: no one can really know what’s in there. Only those who have crossed to the other side (or are crossing it in the moment) do⁸. To become a leader, one needs to learn how to navigate the unknown, beat their own “monsters”, and accept that it is ok to have moments when things are uncertain. This also teaches one to chart their own map, and come out on the other end transformed.
The leadership universe, if that’s still what we are talking about.
Writing down these principles, we have understood that we are just at the beginning of a new chapter: leadership — if that’s still what we are talking about — is a boundless universe.
It’s not about defining the characteristics a leader may or may not have, but the areas, the topics (the words) any and all teams and organizations can work and reflect on to create their own leadership formula, their own power-handling, and information-sharing models.
And what are these words, you ask?
If you want to talk with us about leadership, the nine principles, or how to give shape to your leaderful ecosystems, drop us a line at
See you there!
 Boyatzis,R., McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership, Harvard Business School Press.
 Raelin, J. (2003). Creating Leaderful Organizations. How to bring out leadership in everyone. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.
 Buckingham, M., Goodall, A. (2019.) Nine lies about work, Harvard Business Review Press. (pp. 9–31).
 Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last, Penguin Books LTD.
 Grint, K. (2007). Learning to Lead: Can Aristotle Help Us Find the Road to Wisdom?. Leadership. 3. 231–246. 10.1177/1742715007076215.
 Forabosco, G. (2014). Il settimo senso: Psicologia del senso dell’umorismo. Con istruzioni per l’uso (Italian Edition) (posizioni nel Kindle 310–311). Orme Editori. Edizione del Kindle.
 Holmes, J., Marra, M. (2006). Humor and Leadership Style. Humor-international Journal of Humor Research — HUMOR. 19. 119–138. 10.1515/HUMOR.2006.006.
 Hawkins, B., Edwards, G. (2017). Facing the Monsters: embracing liminality in leadership development. In Kempster, S., Turner, A. F., Edwards, G. (Eds.), Field Guide to Leadership Development (pp. 2013–217). Elgar Field Guides.