When I was younger, I thought leadership was oversold, and what really mattered were the people on the team.
I have recanted this belief.
I still don't entirely understand why leadership is so important, but the experience I've collected over the years is pretty clear on the matter. My best guesses are that it is some combination of the following:
- It is true that the performance of a team is bounded on top by both the quality of the team and the quality of the leadership, but people tend to badly underestimate how much quality and talent there is in the world. The average person is above average in some significant way. I would agree world-class results require a world-class team, but for a given team, it's a rare time when the biggest problem the team has is a true lack of talent. I'm sure it happens, but I've never witnessed it in 15 years, whereas I've witnessed many teams failing to live up to their obvious potential because of bad leadership. So, in a sense it is true that neither leadership nor team talent is more important, but in practice, since team talent is generally a given the leadership will be the most important determining factor between failure and success.
- It is true the team is who provides the day-to-day progress on a problem, but it's generally the leadership making a lot of little decisions that add up over time; little words that affect morale, small key decisions that affect efficiency by a few percent, that little bit of vision-from-experience that avoids blowing a few days on a bad path, the careful selection of problems to personally take on. It adds up to a lot, and especially when the leadership is blowing these little calls consistently, no team is good enough to undo the damage... especially when the leadership actively prevents the repairs!
I do agree that it's important not to fetishize leadership and never to forget the team gets credit too, but over the years my estimation of the importance of true leadership has been going consistently up, not down.
A fixed up version of this post of mine.