What’s the role of the leader?

Last month, we looked at emotionally intelligent teams. This month, we focus on the role of the leader. Next month, we explore the power of making time to think, for yourself and others.

Read on to find out how your actions and behaviours can impact the rest of the organisation and generate sustained results.

What’s the role of the leader?

Boards frequently operate under the false belief that an ego-centric, larger-than-life leader is needed to make a company great. Although it’s counter-intuitive, all long-term ‘great’ companies are led by a Level 5 Leader. This is an ego-less executive where “deep personal humility blends with intense professional will”. Truly great leaders all possess the humility needed to dedicate their energy to something larger and more sustaining than themselves. In short, they put the organisation’s needs above their own.

Here is where level 5 leaders focus their time. You may recognise some of these points as the ‘ingredients for sustainable success’ described in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, where he conducted a five-year research project comparing organisations that made a leap to those that did not.

1. Set the vision and direction

As the leader, you are accountable for the performance of your business, so you need to be forward-thinking. This aspect of the role comprises three components:

  • To determine what the vision is
  • To communicate it clearly so people understand it
  • To inspire people to want it and believe that it’s possible

Create the vision with your people, make it aspirational, and get them pointing in the right direction. 


X marks the sweet spot

Hedgehog concept 

While a complex animal like a fox knows a little about many things, a simple animal such as a hedgehog knows a lot about just one thing. Breakthroughs happen when you focus simply, systematically and consistently.


Keep the vision simple. Eliminate anything that doesn’t fit in the centre of the three circles in the diagram, right.

2. Influence the organisational culture


“Organisational transformation begins with the personal transformation of leaders.” Cultural Transformation Tools (CTT)

The leader or leadership team have the biggest influence on the cultures and behaviours that the organisation adopts. Whatever they do is filtered down to everyone else. People will model the behaviours of the leadership; therefore you have a responsibility to think through and role model the behaviours you want to see mirrored within your organisation.

Note that what you pay attention to is what your staff will pay attention to.

When an individual’s personal values are aligned with the organisation, employee engagement is dramatically increased – resulting in enhanced discretionary effort. ‘Cultural capital’ is seen as the new competitive advantage in an age where information and intellectual capital is now freely available. There is a particular tool I can use to help you establish and roll out your company’s values. Please ask if you’d like more information about this.

“The culture of discipline combined with the ethic of entrepreneurship is the magic alchemy of great performance.”

A culture of discipline is the opposite of a culture of control. Discipline takes three forms that each need to be displayed consistently:

  • When you have disciplined people, you don’t need a hierarchy
  • When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy
  • When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls

The less you control, the more you can do!

3. Empower your people

Self-motivated and self-disciplined people are your greatest asset. A leader should focus on growing their people and creating the optimal working environment for them to perform and be motivated. Get the right people on the bus and in the right seats (and the wrong people off the bus). That is, recruit the people with the skills and attributes you need and deal with under-performers in a timely fashion (delaying is rarely effective).

Put people first and strategy second. Not “let’s be passionate about x”, but “What are we passionate about? Let’s do that.” 

Let your people work out how to deliver the vision themselves, without being overly controlled. Give them the scope to do an interesting job that makes a difference. As we saw from my recent innovation article, this is what employees seek.

4. Know your stuff

Make sure you have the right level of knowledge for what you need to do. As the leader, you don’t need to know everything about everything but you do need to know enough to be credible and make informed decisions. As you go up the ranks you may lose depth of technical knowledge but you will gain strategic focus.


Know the context you’re working in, for example, what the corporation is trying to accomplish and how you can best add value, and what’s going on externally so you can keep ahead of the game.

5. Face reality, optimistically

The Stockdale Paradox is named after James Stockdale who was held in a Vietcong PoW camp, where he maintained two contradictory beliefs: his life couldn’t be worse than it was at the moment, and his life would someday be better than ever. Like him, a leader’s role is to deal with the current reality no matter how painful it may be, while remaining optimistic about where you’ll end up.

Confront the facts, but never lose faith.

If you’re interested in exploring these ideas further, please email me. I’ll be happy to help.

“The greatest gift we can offer each other is the framework in which to think for ourselves.”

Next month, we explore the work of Nancy Kline on how to create time to think, for yourself and other people.