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Middle managers linchpin to dynamic team leadership

Karen Cho |

Although research suggests there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to leadership, a fixed or generic notion of leadership still gets taught at all levels, to be used at all times, for all problems. That’s according to Professor Steve Kozlowski of Michigan State University, who spoke to INSEAD Knowledge on the sidelines of the first INSEAD-Wharton Research Conference on Leadership, about his study into dynamic leadership.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with (generic) theories, but they simply provide a ‘one size fits all’ solution to leadership. And my view on leadership is that, particularly if you want to understand it in more complicated or intense situations, you really need to understand how leadership needs to change in order to fit the requirements of the situation,” Kozlowski says.

The middle ground

With that, the leader can then focus on other things such as minimising conflicts and enabling the team to pursue its mission broadly within the organisation.The middle ground

When it comes to research, Kozlowski’s approach is to focus on middle managers instead of top management.

“We’re not thinking so much about the top of an organisation but really more in the middle where things get done, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. It’s about leaders being able to develop specific skill sets among their subordinates and that means really being able to identify what skills people need to develop and being able to push them along.”

His justification is based on the premise of dynamic team leadership – an understanding of factors at play within a team environment, an action team environment to be precise, and then identifying what a leader needs to do in order to shape the development and capabilities of the team.

The leaders in question are likely to be supervisors or leaders operating within small groups and are therefore well placed to make changes which have the greatest impact. Kozlowski explains that middle managers are the focus of his research because he sees them as the nucleus of an organisation, or the nerve centre, in that they permeate many levels and sectors of the organisation. 

Among the examples he cites of dynamic team leadership at work is a medical emergency scenario involving a trauma patient at a hospital. The patient is wheeled into a room, four physicians come in and immediately have to figure out what has happened, what is wrong, and how they are going to solve the patient’s problems.

“So things are happening very quickly and the consequences of an error are not very good … there isn’t a lot of latitude to make mistakes and so it’s very important that in these high reliability situations, team members can effectively integrate their capabilities and accomplish the goal.”

And that, Kozlowski says, puts the premium on team leadership, to make sure that they have those capabilities when the situation demands flexible adaptive performance.  

Of course, to be effective in the first place, the leader must already possess certain intrinsic qualities, although in dynamic team leadership situations, team members are usually equally matched in terms of competencies and capabilities.

The goal, says Kozlowski, is to build the capabilities of members so that teams can effectively self-manage.

With that, the leader can then focus on other things such as minimising conflicts and enabling the team to pursue its mission broadly within the organisation.


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