Choose Your Team Leaders Wisely


  • More than ever, organizations depend on teams, and team leaders have an outsized impact on people’s productivity, performance, and well-being.
  • Too often, people seen as ‘high-potential’ as team leaders combine individual performance with self-promotion or position themselves for advancement at the expense of others.
  • Insights from neurobiology and psychology uncover practices that can help senior leaders coach managers on distinguishing the best team leader candidates from the rest.
  • By focusing on three essential practices, managers can identify people ready to meet the needs of the future of work versus being better suited for yesterday’s workplace.

More than ever, organizations depend on teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage. Team leaders have an outsized impact on people’s productivity, performance, and well-being, and they should be the core of the pipeline for middle and senior-level talent. Yet too few senior leaders give the attention they should to how these first-level managers are being selected.

Most of the time, team leader selection focuses on people’s track records as individual contributors. Rarely do bosses look closely at how well candidates navigate the relationship and behavior dynamics on their team and with other groups. Too often, people are seen as ‘high-potential’ because they combine individual performance with self-promotion or position themselves for advancement at the expense of others. Power-driven narcissists may have their place, but do you want them leading your teams? 

Three Essential Practices

The successful transformation of an individual contributor to a people manager has many dimensions. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, tips, tricks, and training courses on how to do that. Almost all the playbooks focus on the skills of the prospective team leader. What is rarely addressed are the skills of the hiring manager and how senior leaders can coach them to improve their hiring or promotion practices. 

The following three practices are built on insights from neurobiology and psychology and are useful for uncovering vital behavioral dynamics that distinguish the best team leaders from the rest.

Watch for Team-Centric Behavior. Before considering someone as a top candidate for a people-manager role, ask yourself if you have seen consistent team-centric behavior. Then, ask other managers if they’ve seen or heard the same. Do they consistently live the company’s values, fully engage in their work, take ownership of their mistakes, and help teammates – especially newer, less experienced team members – do their best and be their best? 

Focus on Team Relationship Dynamics. Healthy, trusting relationships are a common denominator among every high-performance team. Place a high priority on manager candidates who demonstrate emotional intelligence, humility, and empathy towards their teammates – people who show they care about strong connections on their team. Those attributes are essential for building and sustaining the trust that inspires peak performance on a team.

Look for Coaches, Not Commanders. Today, a new generation of workers wants managers passionate about helping them learn and grow. As you consider whom to promote into a team leader role, focus on people who naturally teach and coach versus command and control. Then give them a framework of behaviors and opportunities for experiential learning and use technology—tools and metrics—to provide continuous, rigorous, and objective feedback.

Finding Great Team Leaders

The pressure to find team leaders who will inspire their teams to deliver growth, innovation and competitive advantage is higher than ever. Conventional hiring playbooks that start with current individual performance and indicate future leadership traits miss critical behavioral dynamics far more predictive of first-time manager success.

By focusing on team-centric behavior, the ability to manage team dynamics, and an instinct for coaching versus commanding, senior leaders can help their managers in choosing team leaders wisely. As a bonus, they’ll prevent future headaches by eliminating from consideration people who are seen as ‘high-potential’ for the wrong reasons.

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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a behavioral scientist and leading expert in team dynamics. Jeb’s work connects neurobiology, psychology, and technology with team effectiveness and performance. His leadership experience includes multiple founder, CEO, and global F100 VP/GM roles and over thirty years of developing teams and coaching leaders. Jeb holds a doctorate in organizational leadership and is the author of two books on team dynamics and leadership.
Learn more about Jeb’s work making good teams great at