Can You Be a Leader and a Team Player?

You are a leader. And also a team player. But you’re not an individual contributor. Here’s why.


Ask a question about leadership and teamwork on the Internet and, strangely enough, you very often tend to get more opinions than there are people to voice them.

One such question—which somebody on my LinkedIn network asked in a post recently—is, “Can you be a leader and a team player at the same time?” Let’s just say the debate got heated.

So… can you?

Every Team Leader Is a Team Player

However you look at it, this is a good question. And an important one to ask, too. The answer, as with all good questions, isn’t a clear-cut “yes” or “no.”

In job interviews, people are often asked: “Are you a team leader or a team player?” It’s rare for the interviewer as well as the job candidate to even think it’s possible for someone to be both!

“Team leader” is just a less fancy word for “manager.”

And the role of a manager is to have a vision, to set measurable goals, to help the team make progress, and to coach the team’s members so they grow in the role while keeping themselves engaged and motivated.

In a way, the team’s leader is already a team player. It’s just that (a) they are a part-time member of the team and (b) their role isn’t one of an individual contributor, but rather one of a champion and a coach.

Whether that person is a Scrum Master, a Sponsor, a Director, or a Chief Executive… they already play within/with their teams in one way or another.

But Not an Individual Contributor in Their Team

Now here’s the part that many managers, especially first-time managers, get wrong.

A leader’s job is to make decisions/trade-offs and eliminate roadblocks/obstacles for the team so that its members can own and do the work that will bring success.

Over the long haul, the leader needs to make themselves redundant by building and leading a capable, self-reliant team. Ideally, the team should come to them only with the dilemmas and issues that they can’t solve on their own.

If the leader actively contributes to the work, we have a problem.

First, the leader is not making themselves redundant by building a capable, self-reliant team. On the contrary, they are taking on the role of an individual contributor within that team.

Second, the fact that the leader is also an individual contributor makes their role as a leader—the person who decides, unblocks, champions, and coaches, but doesn’t own or do the work—much more difficult.

Don’t get me wrong:

If your team is drowning in work and you, as their leader, can roll up the sleeves on your shirt and help them… by all means, go for it.

But only do this when (a) they’re truly drowning in work, (b) have asked for help, and (c) you helping them do that work doesn’t take away any of their ownership or accountability over it.

In other words: If they’re building a pyramid, have a plan, and need help moving the stones, help them move the stones! But don’t tell them how to plan the build or move the stones unless they specifically ask you to.

(And even then, consider carefully if you need to put on a coach’s hat instead of a doer’s hat on.)

Tips for Leadership Success

Remember that your role is to make decisions and trade-offs. A large part of those decisions and trade-offs, however, should be whether you (or your team) should be making them.

Lead by example—not by telling others what to do or how to do it. The words you speak, the choices you make, and the things you do as a leader have a greater impact on your team’s culture and morale than you probably think.

Focus on the things that build capability and promote a sustainable pace. It’s all too easy to get lost in the critical and urgent. But if you never make the decisions and take the actions that make your team more capable and able to work sustainably, the critical and urgent will never go away.

Categorized as Work

By Dim Nikolov

Jack of all trades and master of none. Dim is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has a decade of experience as a stakeholder, member, leader, and coach for agile teams.