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I have been listening to a lot of leadership podcasts. One was an interview with former Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, who wrote a book titled The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams That Win Consistently.

Tony Dungy is a champion of the idea that the teams that win are the teams with the most unity of purpose, not the teams with the absolute best players.

I am not a direct leader of my team, and our team does not have a manager who works on the same day-to-day items. Sometimes I feel like we lack unity of purpose, and I would like to help its growth. How can I improve my team's unity, and provide general leadership without entering into any of the potential pitfalls? Is setting an example the only way?

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I find that one of the most important factors in becoming a leader on a team, unofficially or officially, is maintaining a positive and communicative relationship with every member of the team. Part of a lead's job is to help every member of the team do well at their job - not just the ones they get along with naturally. You don't have to be buddies with everybody on the team, but everyone should think of you as someone with a fair perspective and someone who respects everyone on the team, even if they'd never want to talk to you outside of work.

This will help you gradually move into the role, as Jae mentioned. If you have some kind of relationship with each team member in which they regard you as helpful (or at least respectfully interested), you can start to become the natural choice.

In this answer, NickC reminds us that leadership isn't about power, it's about service. Your job in forging these relationships is therefore not to nitpick or provide unwanted instructions on how to proceed on a particular project or task. It's to try to provide any help that the team member might require to do their job better, even if sometimes that means simply going out to get them a cup of coffee if it will help them meet a deadline.

A leader should put the needs of their team - both the individuals and the team as a unit - before their own needs. Start doing this, and the title (or at least the unofficial role) will follow.

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Short version: +1. Long version: ...everyone should think of you as someone with a fair perspective and someone who respects everyone on the team, even if they'd never want to talk to you outside of work. I think this is the key to having a peer-leader. The people I've worked for that I've respected the most have been people such as this. I've also heard the saying that the best managers are the ones who get out of the way of a capable team. Good managers trust that they've hired smart, capable people, and also recognize their own limits. :) –  Aarthi Apr 11 '12 at 13:25
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Setting an example is not the only way, but it is the easiest way.

Nobody is going to follow somebody that doesn't know what the heck they're talking about. They're going to follow those who take initiative and are respectable people. By doing this, you won't lose any job security, and you will most likely gain it.

You could also gradually move into the role...

I actually like this scenario. For example, if you were to start helping a single employee with their work, others will see that. They will then begin asking for help, and gradually, you could become a leader in your workplace without anybody even realizing it.

Or you could be an evil dictator...

Yeah. Don't do that.

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I'm not sure setting an example works for all teams. Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow, n all that... –  Amy Blankenship Mar 2 '13 at 1:41
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Setting a good example can be a very lonely and cumbersome approach, especially if you work within IT, since developers are very good at shutting out what goes on around them.

First off, you should assess where the team needs strengthening. Every team has issues, but they vary wildly from inter personal conflicts, poor morale, lack of domain knowledge and so forth. Try spending a little time finding out what you believe the teams greatest weaknesses are.

Once you got there, start out by validating your beliefs. This means: check if a reasonable number of the other team members recognize the same issues and try to see if you can test them by running small experiments or benchmarks.

After having done this, you have a laundry list of issues that your team should work to resolve. Getting to resolve them may require a lot of hard work, but having validated them should help the team understand why they are important to resolve. If you see that you're loosing ground, consider if a re-validation is appropriate and prepare for the possibility that it turns out that some issues aren't worth resolving any longer.

Doing the steps above is the kind of leadership that I believe would help in your situation.

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