Today I was sort of idly thinking about the difference between a manager and a team leader. I suppose these terms mean different things in different organizations, but I think it makes sense to propose general definitions that clarify a somewhat hazy topic. We’ll assume that in both cases, the members of the team report to the manager or team leader, at least for the duration of the project that they’re working on. (If you work at a place where people have a manager and a team leader and the responsibilities are divided, all bets are off.)
Both are accountable for the overall performance of the team. If the team fails to meet its goals or is dysfunctional, that’s on the person who’s running the team, regardless of their title. I strongly prefer to think about these responsibilities in terms of accountability rather than authority for the reasons I talked about in my post about judgement and influence. I think that teams function most effectively when the members buy into the team goals individually because they see the value in them, rather than because somebody told them to do something.
So the difference is that a team leader should be thought of as the senior practitioner on the team whereas for a manager that may not be the case. If you’re the team leader of a team of developers, you should probably be the best developer on the team, and the other members of the team should respect your technical capabilities. If you’re the manager of a team of programmers, that’s not necessarily the case. A manager may be a fine programmer, but their core responsibility is management and coordination, not necessarily bringing an authoritative voice when it comes to making technical decisions.
The difference matters in terms of setting the expectations of the members of the team. It’s a dangerous thing when the members of a team think of the person running the team as a manager but they think of themselves as a team leader. Or if the team members have a manager they expect to be a team leader but who isn’t equipped to function in that role.
I’d be curious to know what other people think about these definitions. I haven’t heard of the two titles being defined this way before, but they match with my expectations based on my experience. I think that as an industry, it might pay off to formalize them.