By Roy Osherove

In this article, excerpted from Elastic Leadership, you’ll get an introduction to three team phases and the leadership types that make the most sense for each.

The most important thing you will need to know before you plan how to lead a team are the three team phases: survival mode, learning mode, and self-organization. This article will serve as a quick guide to recognizing three team phases and the leadership types that make the most sense for each phase.

First, let’s clarify why we need to define these phases. The reasons have to do with our overall goal as team leaders. What do you think your role is as a team leader? For a few years, I had to guess. Nobody told me and I had no one to learn from. Now I think I know.

Before we go on, I want to clarify my future usage of some wording. I’ll be using the words phase and mode interchangeably. As a short example of how I use them, in the learning phase you go into learning mode. Phase is where you think your team is; mode is how you react to which phase you are in. Think of it like the fight or flight instincts that we all have. When these instincts take over, we act a certain way. So you might say that when we recognize we are in the survival phase, we initiate our survival instinct or survival mode. Or if we recognize that we are operating in learning mode while our organization is operating in survival mode, we can say we are really in a survival phase and we should initiate survival mode behavior and instinct.

The role of the team leader

In the past, one of my biggest mistakes as a team leader was that I didn’t recognize that my style of leadership was irrelevant to the needs of my team. I don’t blame myself, of course :).

During my first time as a team leader, my idea of what a team leader should do was very different from what it is today. Back then, my idea was:

A team leader should provide to their team everything the team needs and then get out of the way.

Boy, did I think I was stellar! When people needed something—working code, infrastructure, a faster machine, or just an answer to something—I was their guy. By my own definition back then, I was doing a great job.

Of course, doing a “great job” back then meant that I had very little time for myself and was mostly in meetings or was coding all day. I didn’t allow myself to take even a couple of days to go on a vacation and actually be away. I was always at work because people needed me. And it felt great to be needed.

Looking back, I could have done so much better as the team leader with a bit more team training. Not saying the ways in which I lead was bad, but everyone can do with a bit of help once in a while, even if they think they are working at their best. That’s because today I believe the role of a team leader is vastly different from simply solving problems and getting out of the way.

Growth through challenge

Here’s how I define team leader today:

A team leader grows the people on their team.

I believe this should be your first “compass” in determining your behavior as a lead. You may ask, “What about delivering value to the company?” I believe that delivering value flows naturally from that. If people grow, value delivery also grows because skills grow. More importantly, the attachment and commitment of people to want to do the right thing also grows. Loyalty grows. A team leader ensures that their team can work together with any issues that might arise. For this, team building exercises are a good way of promoting teamwork among the team. However, it is, at times, can be hard to find exercises that really challenge your team and help them to grow. If you are looking for help with team building san diego is a good place to start looking for ideas.

One of my mentors, Eli Lopian, told me once:

“People don’t quit their jobs. They quit their managers.”

I think that’s a very true statement (at least for the several companies I’ve quit). By growing the people on your team as team players or valuable working individuals, you are generating internal value for them—not just for the company. True loyalty comes when you have everything to gain by sticking around and you realize it.


More things logically follow if your guiding rule is to help grow people. To grow people at work means to help them acquire new skills. For them to acquire skills you must challenge them. Therefore, you have to stop solving all their problems for them and ask them to solve problems on their own (with your guidance, of course). If you constantly solve problems for your team, the only person learning how to do new things is you.

You’re the bottleneck

By solving your team’s problems, you’re being their bottleneck, and they’ll find themselves unable to manage without you. If you’re sick for three days, can you leave your phone turned off? Or are you constantly worried and logging into the company’s VPN to check and fix things that nobody else on the team can do? If the team has to wait for you to be available to solve problems, you’re the bottleneck, and you’ll never have time to do the things that really matter most.

Crunch time and leadership styles

Many of you might say, “Well, that makes no sense. We’re in crunch time! The release is late, and now I’m supposed to take what little time we have left to teach people new things? I have enough on my plate as it is!” And you’d be right, of course. It’s not always a good idea to start challenging people. Sometimes, challenges don’t make sense.

Challenging people is one style of leadership. Let’s talk about two more:

  1. Command and control leadership
  2. Facilitating leadership

Why do we need to talk about the other styles? Because this style of challenging to grow isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes, a more “command and control” style of leadership is required, where a leader needs to make clear cut decisions as in

“Yes, we’re using source control, and no, we’re not holding a meeting on whether we should or should not.”

Command and control is sometimes a good idea because there are times when a team leader must be able to direct their team down a path where the team has very little ability to face the current reality, with no time to learn how to deal with the current circumstances (such as when fighting many fires).

The third leadership style—facilitation–can be described by many agile consultants as

“Just lock the team in a room, give them a goal, and get the hell out of their way.”

Agile methodologies sometimes call this a “self-organizing” team.

Facilitation is also a good idea sometimes, because sometimes the team already knows how to do the work and how to solve their own problems, and a leader will just get in the way of getting the job done.

So, which one should you choose?

Which Leadership Style Should You Choose?

It seems like all of the above approaches—command and control, growing, and facilitation— are good styles at different points in time. Team leaders have succeeded by doing each, but many have failed with each of them as well. So when does it make sense to use each of these different leadership ideas? When are those times when, as a leader, you need to take charge and start making some hard decisions? And when are those times when using command and control eadership will hurt more than it helps? When should you just lock your team members up in a room and get out of their way because they know what they’re doing?

Just to get your head straight, I’ll recap that we’re talking about three different leadership types that I’ve seen in the wild:

  1. Command and control leader
  2. Coaching leader
  3. Facilitating leader (self-organizing teams)

Time for a small confession. It’s easier for me to start with an answer to the opposite question:

“When should I not use each leadership style?

Let’s tackle each one specifically and see when it makes no sense to use it.

Command and control

We’ve all seen or have been this type of leader at some point. You tell people what to do. You are the “decider.” You take one for the team, but you also have the team in your pocket in terms of hierarchy, decision making, and control over everyone’s actions.

The command and control leader might also solve everyone’s problem for them. I once had a team leader who, on the first day that I joined the team, set up my laptop while typing blazingly fast on the keyboard and not sharing with me anything he was doing. When I asked questions, he muttered something along the lines of “Don’t concern yourself with this now. You have more important things to do.” (Read that sentence with a heavy Russian accent for better effect.)

With a controlling leader, there is little room for people to learn, take sole ownership of anything, or take initiative that might go against the rules. And that’s just the way things are.

This approach won’t work if your team already knows what they’re doing or if they expect to learn new things and be challenged to become better.


The coach is also known as “the teacher” and is great at teaching new things to others. The opposite of the controlling leader, the coach is great at teaching others to make decisions while letting them make the wrong decisions as long as there is an important lesson to be learned.

Time is not an issue for a coach because time is meant for learning. It’s like teaching your kid to put on their shoes and tie their shoelaces—it takes time, but it’s an important skill, so you’d be making a mistake not to take the time to let your kid to go through this exercise on his own, cheering him from the sidelines.

This approach won’t work if you and your team don’t have enough free time to actually practice and do any learning. So if you’re busy putting out fires all day, and you’re already behind schedule anyway, you won’t have time to also learn or try new things like refactoring or test-driven development.


The facilitator stays out of everyone’s way. Whereas the coach challenges people to stop and learn something, the facilitator simply makes sure that the current environment, conditions, goals, and constraints are such that they will drive the team to get things done. The facilitator doesn’t solve the team’s problems but instead relies on the team’s existing skills to solve their own problems.

This whole approach won’t work if the team does not have sufficient skills to solve their own problems (such as slow machines, talking to customers, and so on).

Now that we’ve discussed when not to use each leadership style, let’s talk about when they do make sense.

Leadership Styles and Team Phases

Each of these leadership types belongs in a different phase of the team’s needs. There are times when a team needs a commander, times when it needs a coach, and times when it needs a facilitator. What are those times? I call them the three team phases.

The three team phases

These phases are how I currently decide for myself which leadership type is required for the current team. The question “Which leadership type is right?” should be asked on a daily basis because teams can flow in and out of these phases based on many factors.

Survival phase (no time to learn)

Survival sounds dramatic and is as alarming as it sounds. But it doesn’t necessarily mean coffee-stained carpets and a sleepless staff.

I define survival as your team not having enough time to learn.

In order to accomplish your goal as a leader (getting people to grow), you need to make time to learn, so your main strategy or instinct during this phase is to get the team out of the survival phase by creating slack time. In order to slack time, you will most likely need to use a command and control style of leadership.

Learning phase (learning to solve your own problems)

You can tell you’re in the learning phase when:

When your team has enough slack time to learn and experiment and you’re actually using that slack time.

Slack time can be used for learning new skills, or removing some technical debt, or even doing both at the same time, such as:

  • Learning and slowly implementing test-driven development with people who have no experience with it
  • Enhancing or building a continuous integration cycle with people who have no experience with it
  • Enhancing test coverage with people who have no experience with it
  • Learning about and refactoring code with people who have no experience with it

In short, use slack time to do anything, and add the phrase “with people who have no experience with it” to the end of the sentence.

Your main goal as a leader (in order to achieve your overall role of growing people) is to grow the team to be self-organizing by teaching and challenging them to solve their own problems.

To achieve that, you need to become more of a coaching style leader, with the occasional intervention of the controlling leader, for those cases when you don’t have enough slack time to learn from a specific mistake.

Self-organizing phase (facilitate, experiment)

You can tell you’re in the self-organizing phase

If you can leave work for a few days without being afraid to turn off your cell phone and laptop. If you can do that, come back, and things are going well, your team is in the quite unique position of solving their own problems without needing you to help them through.

Your goal in the self-organizing phase is to keep things as they are by being a facilitator and keeping a close eye on the team’s ability to handle the current reality; when the team’s dynamics change, you can determine what leadership style you need to use next.

The self-organizing phase is also a lot of fun because this is the phase where you have the most time to experiment and try different approaches, constraints, and team goals that will grow you and your team even more.

This is the point where you have the most time to yourself to do the things that matter most. As a leader, you have a vision to drive for. If you’re always keeping your head down, you can’t look up and see if your team is going in the right direction.

From my personal experience, most of the teams I’ve seen are far from self-organizing. My belief (though I have little more than gut feeling and anecdotal experience) is that maybe 5% of software teams in the world are truly self-organizing and are capable of solving their own problems. Some 80% of the software teams out there are probably in survival mode. (How often were you part of a team that kept putting out fires and never had time to do “the right thing”? I thought so. Me too.)

So, how do you switch to a different phase

When does a team move between phases?

It’s important that you recognize when your team needs a new type of leadership, so you’ll have to keep a close eye on the team’s main assets. Any event that can shift the balance of the following team assets can easily cause the team to have different needs from you as a leader:

  • Asset #1: The team’s knowledge and skill to solve their own problems
  • Asset #2: The team’s amount of slack time

Here are a couple of examples of events that could trigger a team phase shift:

· Let’s say you are bringing new people into the team who lack the skills to solve their own problems. You might be going into the learning phase. If they still have time to learn, then you are indeed in the learning mode. You can use this time to teach those problem-solving skills to the new team members. Better yet, you might take the opportunity to teach some of the more experienced folks on the team how to mentor the new team members to solve their own problems. That way everyone is challenged and growing, not just the new members.

· Let’s say you or someone else is changing deadlines on known goals. This could possibly remove any slack time that the team is using to learn. You might be in the survival phase. Time to get out of there fast by removing some commitments and making more slack time available for learning!


That was a quick guide to recognizing the three team phases and leadership types that make the most sense for each phase. I hope you you make the most of this information for the success of your team!