Stop Calling Them Team Leaders If You Don’t Expect Them to Lead

By Karen Schmidt


Language matters. What we call something can help or hinder our understanding of it. The gardening world is full of examples of plants that have been given names that have no relationship to the plant. This can make it very confusing for new gardeners. For example, Pineapples aren’t related to pines or apples, Peanuts aren’t actually a nut and Primoses aren’t roses. I see the same problem happening in the workplace when we call people team leaders when they are really team managers. I have an issue with that practice.

I actually like the term team leader and I wish we had more of them. The problem is that too many organisations give people this job title but then only expect them to manage or, even worse, only let them manage even though they want to lead.

The common job titles I hear when working with clients are supervisor, manager, leading hand or team leader. I call them frontline leaders. When I use that term I am referring to a specific type of person. I am talking about someone who is actually leading a team not just managing it. My explanation of the difference between these two terms follows my view that a great leader is like a great gardener.


They are able to keep their plants alive but just don’t seem able to get them to flower or fruit. You would describe them as a competent gardener but not an outstanding one. They understand some aspects of gardening but not enough to achieve success every time. A person who can manage will also find that their team performs adequately but is nothing to be proud of. You could say they leave their people with unused potential waiting to be released. This is the equivalent of a seed that is ready to be germinated but needs the right conditions to do so. On the surface their team seems to be performing but they could be doing so much more.


They understand what it takes to get plants to look their best and be highly productive. Outstanding gardeners may even have grown new varieties or designed ingenious methods for overcoming challenges their environment presents. This is someone that other gardeners turn to for advice and inspiration. A leader understands what it takes to help each of their team members reach their full potential. They can see the oak tree within the acorn. They provide the right combination of feedback, encouragement and support to allow their team members to capitalise on their natural strengths. This is the person that others turn to for advice and inspiration. They have no trouble attracting team members as everyone wants to work for them.

So what do you call people who are in charge of the workers or frontline staff in your organisation? If you call them team leaders and they actually lead then great. But if you only expect them to manage then change their title or they will believe they are a leader when they are actually a manager. It’s all starts with your development program. You must be clear if the program is designed to teach management skills or leadership skills. To clarify, management is important. I am not down playing its role. I am just making the point that by confusing the two terms you are confusing people in those roles and stunting the growth of your organisation.




If you want to move your people from managing to leading then contact me to discuss how to improve your development program by taking my Frontline Leadership Development Stocktake. Using a 40 point checklist I can provide you with easy and cost effective ways to start growing more leaders.

Karen Schmidt from Let’s Grow! is the frontline leadership expert. As a speaker, coach and facilitator she works with frontline leaders and the people who develop them.

Her mission is to grow frontline managers into frontline leaders so they perform better, which improves team productivity, giving senior leaders peace of mind. To learn more about her services visit