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Quality over Quantity: How Team Size Shapes Leadership Skills

In leadership, it's common to boast about one's managerial prowess by highlighting the size of the teams they've led. I've found myself underestimating the complexities of leading smaller teams, at times even anticipating them as being less challenging than larger ones. However, this perspective often stems from ego, and when spoken out loud, can be received as patronizing, implying that smaller teams are less significant than larger ones. But does the size of a team truly reflect our effectiveness as leaders, or is it just a showcase of our vanity? Today, we will dive into the differences between managing large and small teams. We will examine the distinct perceptions and skill sets required for each, exploring how these factors influence success. Join me as we discover some unexpected insights and perhaps challenge some entrenched views on leadership.

This topic became a question for me when I heard a leader outwardly claim to a small team as he was baffled by not getting the response/results he was expecting, "I've led a team of 1000 before, I know how to lead people." So many things went through my mind at that time, one of which was 'actions over words' (thats another blog), and another was my insatiable curiosity to find out...can one person actually lead 1000 people? Or does this one person lead 10 people, who leads 10 people, who leads 10 more people, then simply take the credit for the successful downstream leadership?

Leadership effectiveness is fundamentally about the capacity to effectively oversee and support team members. For everything, a threshold exists that, when exceeded, leads to diminished outcomes. In leadership, there is a limit to how many people one can "effectively" oversee before the effectiveness of oversight diminishes, leading to decreased morale and lower productivity. This concept is akin to the "Law of Diminishing Returns" in economics, which explains that beyond a certain point, additional resources yield less benefit, resulting in less efficient outcomes. For instance, while a certain amount of fertilizer optimizes crop growth, too much can disrupt soil balance and reduce output, illustrating how more is not always better.

A common misconception exists, that leading a large team translates to a leader having more advanced skills, which does a disservice to the nuanced reality that true leadership is about influence, not size. Societal norms often drive the belief that a person who leads a large team must possess astute skills. These include the prestige associated with large teams, the complexity of managing diverse tasks, the responsibility of handling significant resources, and societal valorization of hierarchy and size. However, effective leadership is better evaluated by the impact a leader has on their team members, a perspective often overlooked by external observers.

In contrast, the proximity of leading small teams is perceived as being more personal, allowing leaders to develop close relationships with their team members, understand their needs, and tailor their leadership accordingly. Leaders of small teams often take on multiple roles, from strategic planning to day-to-day management, which requires flexibility and agility not confined by bureaucratic hurdles. Despite having fewer resources, these leaders are required to be resourceful, creative, and niche experts within their fields. All of which are essential for directly influencing team dynamics and outcomes.

These perceptions underscore that leadership can manifest differently depending on the context and size of the team, each of which present unique challenges and opportunities. In truth, when determining the "effectiveness" of a leaders capabilities, it boils down to how impactful was the leader for each individual person. The proximity of a small team leader not only fosters a deeper understanding of each individual's challenges and strengths but also necessitates a leadership style heavily skewed towards effective people management. In contrast, managers of larger groups often find themselves orchestrating more from a process and systems standpoint, which can sometimes distance them from the frontline struggles of their teams.

The measure of accountability can be profoundly different between a leader of a small team over that of a large team. While each would contend their level of accountability is enormous, and rightfully so, the measure of it lives on different scales. Accountability for a large team leader often resides in being accountable to deployment of strategy, where as a leader of a small team is not only accountable for the strategy, but also that of consumer satisfaction and utilization. Often, a large team leader's vision and directives pass through multiple layers of management, resulting in reinterpretations, adjustments, or a diluting of the message. For some, these added layers prove to smooth some of the harsh edges before the messages make their way to the front lines ("Your Welcome!"). After such translation, the outcome can barely be attributed to the top line leader, but rather are more a reflection of the middle managers - or those that actually are leading the smaller teams. Ultimately obscuring the true effectiveness of the larger team leader.

While the prestige associated with leading large teams is an acceptable norm, the ability to impart direct influence and contribute to actual team results is more pronounced in smaller teams. Small team leaders who connect with the front line team members must lead with skills such as empathy, trust, delegation, and effective communication skills including listening. Large team leaders who may be 2-3 (or more) layers removed from the front line work, often lead with 'process-oriented' behaviors such as micro-management, ego-driven decision making, poor listening skills, and dismissing feedback, which causes resentment and dis-engagement of team members.

Effective leadership has limits, and stretching beyond them can compromise the integrity and success of a team. The next time you feel compelled to marginalize a small group over a larger group, remember with a finely crafted Rolex watch...each piece is meticulously crafted, taking hundreds of hours to complete. While each Rolex craftsman can only manage creating few in comparison to his Seiko counterpart, the attention given, creates a watch that is more durable, has a longer life, greater performance standards, and overall higher quality; often appreciating in value over time. Quality will trump quantity in watches as well as in leadership, every time!

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