Team leaders do all the work but get no authority

Many now designated as team leaders were front-line supervisors, so we know what
supervision is all about. As supervisors, we at least had a bit of authority. Typically,
the team leader has the responsibilities of a supervisor without the attendant authority.
We are privileged to plan, direct, manage and guide projects, but we can't rate or reward
employee behavior. We can recommend ratings and awards, but a real supervisor still calls
those shots.

Under team leaders, employees either have difficulty figuring out who they are
responsible to or shrewdly figure it out. If the team leader and supervisor don't see
eye-to-eye, employees can play one off against the other, like a teen-ager provoking Mom
and Dad to argue. If the supervisor makes assignments and changes priorities, the team
leader can quickly be left out in the cold.

One recent article brought to mind both the problems and the handful of benefits I have
experienced as a team leader. It described how many agencies shrank their middle
management ranks with a deft series of database transactions. Yet in a number of
instances, the actual number of bosses rose despite the drop in reported supervisors.

To become a supervisor, I attended many months of classes and seminars. But in becoming
a team leader, I was not burdened with orientation, training or any sort of trial period.
I simply received an SF-50 with the word "supervisory" removed from my job
title. Questions about this new status were greeted with reassurances that all was well
and I need not worry. And because there was no loss in grade or pay, I needn't bother to
appeal the action.

One of those supervision classes I took so many years ago stressed the importance of
balancing responsibility and authority. The assertion made was that if one was responsible
for a task, one needed the authority over the necessary resources. Without such authority,
a person cannot effectively direct these resources because he or she has no means to hold
people accountable.

The reality of the situation is not so cut-and-dried. Much of a team leader's authority
derives from his or her experience and wisdom, traits that cannot be delegated from
management. As a team leader, your role becomes the idiosyncratic result of choice and
circumstance. It can range from guru to simply team player.

But the loss of the word "supervisory" in your job title can definitely be a
barrier to advancement. A team leader can be anything from a well-paid worker bee to a
virtual supervisor. However, prospective employers cannot always discern which end of the
spectrum the team leader applicant comes from. The supervisor has the title, so that box
is check-marked from the start. This detail can be a big advantage in the increasingly
tight competition for promotion into management ranks.

Job politics aside, the key to personal satisfaction as a team leader, or in any job,
is to know your life mission and understand where your current job fits in that mission.
Perhaps your job is a stepping stone to a vocation more in line with your mission. Or
perhaps your job actively engages you in your mission. In any case, your mission provides
you and those around you with a compass.

You'd be surprised how many people will gladly follow anyone who is marching
confidently in a consistent direction.

The closer your personal mission dovetails with your agency's mission, the easier it is
to make decisions. Your personal mission is like a lens that brings what's important into
focus; urgent but trivial matters become increasingly easy to reject.

If you act in a manner congruent with the agency mission, free of the desire for
personal gain or recognition, your decisions become hard to criticize.

As promotions become increasingly rare in this time of downsizing and reinvention, the
motives for personal gain have likewise become more scarce. Employees seeking personal
advancement move onto greener pastures, leaving behind the zealots and the indolent. The
federal workplace will become a curious place indeed as the boomer generation retires.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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