Getting Your Team to Step Up


It’s 3:00 PM on a Friday. One team member hasn’t delivered a critical milestone and is not picking up the phone. Another team member, managing a complex project, has just asked you to step in. Meanwhile, yet another team member is complaining about a peer taking credit for work they didn’t do. This would be frustrating enough if your sole role were managing these issues, but you have bigger organizational commitments and peer relationships of your own to navigate. If only your team could step up and take ownership of these matters within their control.

As a strong leader, you’ve developed the acumen to have tough accountability conversations, influence across the organization, make hard calls, and inspire your team. Yet, it would be beneficial if the team could become more self-reliant.

Here lies the paradox: sometimes strong leaders inadvertently foster dependent teams. Consider the image of the strong leader: charismatic, in control, able to hold people accountable, swift and confident in decision-making, bringing out the best in team members, creating a positive team culture, and allocating resources wisely. All characteristics we desire in those we put in charge.

However, these very strengths often hinder the development of a self-reliant and accountable team.

Perhaps it’s the impact of COVID-19 and remote work, or maybe it’s due to increasingly complex and matrixed reporting structures. Whatever the cause, the traditional strong-leader approach is resulting in ineffective teams and burnt-out leaders.

  • Holding people accountable has made you the arbitrator, with people bringing their frustrations to you expecting you to have the tough conversation.
  • Your deft decision-making has led you to be involved in every discussion and in charge of decisions of all sizes and consequences. The team seems unwilling to move without your blessing.
  • Building on people’s strengths has become a hub-and-spoke model, where people are connected to you but unable to see their peers’ strengths and know when to turn to their expertise.
  • Because you are the voice of team culture, it’s present when you are in the room, but when you leave, the team does not self-regulate.

In days gone by, when a leader’s sole job was managing the team’s work, this passed as good leadership. But in today’s landscape, it is ineffective and unsustainable. There is another way that builds on leadership strengths yet encourages shared responsibility, cultivates a culture of wisdom, and unlocks the full potential of teams—distributed leadership.

Understanding Distributed Leadership

The emerging distributed leadership model recognizes the limitations of traditional top-down leadership and embraces a more inclusive and collaborative model. In a distributed leadership environment, the focus shifts from the leader being the sole holder of authority to empowering team members to actively assume certain leadership responsibilities. The leader becomes a facilitator, working collaboratively with the team rather than directing from above. As Uit de Werd and Fridjhon state in Systems Inspired Leadership, “[distributed leadership] moves away from the top-down leadership paradigm and promotes shared leadership at all levels within the organization. It invites you to create from the wisdom of the system rather than to react, and it reduces the feeling that everything depends on you.”

The Shifting Roles of a Leader

The leader’s role shifts from doing the team management to teaching the team to self-regulate. The same strengths apply, but they become a shared resource rather than held solely by the leader. The shift looks like this:


  • Traditional Leadership: Holding People Accountable: Leaders were responsible for establishing clear expectations and holding team members accountable for their performance and contributions. They acted as the final authority on matters of discipline and ensured that everyone aligned with the organization’s goals.
  • Distributed Leadership: Promoting Shared Accountability: Leaders promote, expect, and teach shared accountability, where each team member plays a crucial role in holding one another responsible for their actions and commitments. This culture of trust and reliability strengthens the team’s cohesiveness. The leader is no longer the arbitrator of conflict resolution but teaches team members to engage in difficult conversations when necessary.


  • Traditional Leadership: Identifying Alternatives and Making Decisions: Leaders were the primary decision-makers, evaluating available options and selecting the most suitable course of action for the team and the organization. Their wisdom and experience played a pivotal role in guiding the team’s direction.
  • Distributed Leadership: Building Psychological Safety for Decision-Making: Leaders create psychological safety as the bedrock of shared responsibility and better decision-making. Team members actively work together to foster open communication, candor, and respectful challenges. This promotes honest dialogue and creativity that yields better decision-making. Not to be confused with a polite team, psychologically safe teams debate and engage when things get hard.

Team Acknowledgment

  • Traditional Leadership: Recognition and Acknowledgment of Team Members: Leaders were the ones to recognize the efforts and achievements of their team members. They provided encouragement, praise, and reward to influence the team’s morale.
  • Distributed Leadership: Creating Generosity and Acknowledgment: The leader unleashes a cycle of generosity and acknowledgment where team members regularly recognize and appreciate each other’s efforts, contributing to a positive work environment and heightened morale.


  • Traditional Leadership: Owning Team Culture: Leaders were responsible for shaping the team’s culture, values, and norms. They set the tone for the organization, influencing how team members interacted and collaborated.
  • Distributed Leadership: Cultivating Self-Management: Leaders empower team members to take ownership of their collective work. With both greater autonomy and increased responsibility, individuals are motivated to excel, leading to increased productivity and creativity.

The Transformative Impact of Distributed Leadership

Gone are the days when traditional, hierarchical leadership models were the most effective approach. Leaders need to learn the new skills of distributing leadership responsibility without abdicating leadership.

By distributing leadership in teams, organizations can move quicker and with more agility. When teams are empowered to self-manage and be responsible not just to a leader but to each other, it removes the leader as a bottleneck and reduces the burden on a single leader.