Virtual Teams

The difference between leadership and management in virtual teams?

I am not a great fan of the debate about the difference between leadership and management, but I just got asked about it again in one of our virtual team workshops and it prompted this blog.

I see many definitions of the difference, mostly around the manager’s job being to plan, organize and coordinate and the leader’s job being to inspire and motivate.  Others basically assert that leadership equals management plus vision.

However if a virtual team manager doesn’t have a sense of direction and the skills to motivate then they are not useful as managers – effectively this is an administrators job description focusing on transactional tasks.

A definition I like is that leaders have people follow them while managers have people who work for them.  If the leader cannot do the basic managerial transactions well it is unlikely people will want to follow them and in a virtual team where the leader does not have formal reporting relationships eliciting willing followership is essential.

In virtual teams we need a larger number of people to exercise leadership (as distinct from being a formal leader). Leadership should be able to flow naturally to whoever has the right knowledge or capability to exercise it in the particulate circumstance, irrespective of hierarchical position.

In virtual teams and other complex environments, we can’t really afford the old and limited definition managers. If we differentiate between management and leadership, we are left with a definition of management which is relatively passive, in a complex environment people really need to be active agents in shaping their own roles, in reaching out and collaborating with others and in driving towards the goal.

Virtual teams are not well suited to traditional management, by definition people are distributed, most of the work goes on individually and away from the gaze of traditional supervision.

If a transactional manager feels the need to closely “manage” this distributed workforce, this effectively becomes about control. Whilst some governance is necessary in all organisations there is a real risk in virtual teams that, because managers cannot see their people regularly and may not have direct hierarchical control over them, they tend to compensate with other forms of control, perhaps setting an additional meeting, putting in place another approval or requesting increased reporting. Most of this is low added value activity and can seriously delay the activity of virtual teams and disempower their people.

So instead of endlessly parsing the definitions of leaders and managers, in virtual teams we need everyone to demonstrate leadership (as opposed to being a formal leader), leadership transcends position and is about having a view of the future and driving yourself and others towards it, management means doing the transactional parts of your job really well, using your time effectively, collaborating with others, communicating through technology.

In a virtual team you can’t exercise leadership without good personal management. and you can’t manage yourself or others without inspiration and direction. We are all leaders and followers at the same time and we all need a healthy dose of management to get things done.

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