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Are you leading a team or a group?

Leading a team and leading a group can look similar, but the differences have vast implications for your leadership and organization.

6 min read


Are you leading a team or a group?

Susan Fowler

Are you struggling to lead your team? Before answering, consider this essential question: Are you leading a team, or are you fooling yourself?

Misunderstanding who or what you’re leading is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, and it could be the source of your struggle.

Try this quick quiz. Determine which of the following examples represent a team and which represent a group:

  • District sales reps
  • San Diego Padres
  • U.S. women’s gymnastics team
  • Board of directors for a publicly held company
  • White House staff
  • Night-shift workers
  • Claims clerks in an insurance office
  • Employees brought together to create the organization’s purpose statement

Are you leading a team or a group?

As you check your responses to the quiz, consider how the team vs. group distinction affects your leadership.

The sales reps are a group, not a team, because there is no interdependency. Each rep’s goals are similar, but they are individual rather than collective. Even if they pursue a district goal, the way they achieve that goal is every person for themself.

One of the greatest misnomers is the sales team. If you are a sales team leader, you are probably leading a group of individual salespeople, and your focus should be on developing an individual’s sales competencies and performance.

But if your sales folks have interdependent goals, are rewarded interdependently and must function as a one for all and all for one team to be successful, then you are leading a team. But you also have the responsibility to make sure each individual lives up to their goals and expectations, requiring that you lead in both the one-to-one and team contexts.

The San Diego Padres are a team because the members have a shared vision, goals and outcomes that need the contribution of each individual’s specialized talent and skill.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics squad is a group where each young woman vies for an individual title. But they come together as a team when competing for the team medal, with each individual performance contributing to the team’s success.

White House staffers form a team, interdependent with an appointed leader, assigned roles and responsibilities, and shared purpose and goals. The board of directors is a team for the same reason.

The night-shift workers, meanwhile, are a group unless, for example, working together on a special task force with defined outcomes where each person’s job influences another person’s success. The claims clerks are a group, given the same circumstances as the night-shift workers.

Finally, the employees brought together to create the purpose statement are a team because they share the duty to create a product or deliverable (the organization’s purpose statement) and require interdependence to carry it out.

Why make the distinction?

The distinction between a team and a group is critical because one of three things could result if you misjudge who you are leading.

  1. You may be wasting team-building efforts on a group that doesn’t need them. Groups usually don’t have common goals that require interdependent actions and shared knowledge to achieve goals over a sustained period.
  2. If you assume you are leading a group and fail to provide the team leadership needed, you almost guarantee the team will fail.
  3. You don’t want to expend team leadership skills on a group of people at the expense of one-to-one leadership that individuals may need. Although groups may require specific team skills, you should never let this cause you to overlook or underestimate your role as a leader of individuals.

A group of individuals coming together in meetings to share and receive information does not make them a team. If you think you’re leading a team, but it’s a group of individuals, you could be neglecting the one-to-one leadership individuals in the group need from you.

Leading a team may be more challenging than you may realize

If you’re convinced you’re leading a team and not a group of individuals, your leadership skill level becomes imperative. Developing the competencies to lead in the team context is essential. Consider this: You bring together a team of:

  • four people, and you have 11 possible relationships
  • eight people, and you have 247 potential groupings
  • 16 people, and you generate the possibility of a stunning 65,519 subgroups!

Leading a team is exponentially more complicated than leading an individual or group. You need to gather, structure and develop the collective abilities and energies of team members who have a common purpose, then guide them to achieve interdependent goals and sustained high performance.

When you lead an individual, you need to set goals, listen and problem-solve. That’s a challenging role — especially if you have more than one person on your staff. But when you lead a team, the challenge becomes more sophisticated. Goal-setting expands to chartering; listening advances to gatekeeping; managing conflict demands managing team dynamics.

The complexity of team leadership demands a focus that many leaders fail to recognize and requires a variety of high-level leadership behaviors that many fail to master.

So if you are struggling to lead your team, maybe it’s time to elevate your leadership skills so you can respond to the needs of the unique team dynamic.

Susan Fowler is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

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