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Seven Leadership Roles

  Farid A. Muna | PhD - Board Member

  29th January, 2015

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All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women are merely players:
They have their exits and entrances;
And one man in his life plays many parts.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2

How many roles does a leader play? Undoubtedly, there are many more than seven; but the following are seven roles that I believe are critical to leadership success:

The leader as

  • Gardener: Cultivating HR
  • Canada Goose: Three Leadership Lessons
  • Negotiator: Beyond Win-Win
  • Student of Cultures: A Worldly Mindset
  • Captain: Strategic Thinking
  • Abacus: Beyond the Financial Bottom Line
  • Acrobat: Balancing Work and Personal Life

I have always felt that whenever these seven roles were discussed, the strategic element was significantly under-emphasized or completely overlooked. This is precisely what I attempt to do here: incorporate a strategic approach to each role.

Three of the above roles were covered at length in articles published in academic journals (see References, below). The other roles were briefly described in various short articles (some of them appear on this Meirc website). The current article is a brief summary of all seven leadership roles. Of course, the vast literature on leadership can easily yield many more roles that leaders play—perhaps more than twenty depending on the school of thought and specialization of the writer. Yet I have chosen just seven roles which are particularly critical for increasing the effectiveness of leaders working across various types of organizations.

Why seven? Well, there are two good reasons. First, the seven roles are those that are most familiar to me. Clearly, to discuss all of the other equally critical leadership roles would result in a book more voluminous than my objective of producing a short summary for busy leaders.

Second, I selected seven roles because I was influenced long ago by the psychologist George Miller (1956) who published an interesting article titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”. Miller suggested that the number seven reflects our cognitive capability for comfortably retaining information in our immediate memory. He wrote: “The span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process, and remember.” Miller reminded us of the Seven Wonders of the World, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven days of the week, and the seven seas. I would add here that one finds this magical number stated often in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; not to mention its frequent references in Far Eastern religions and cultures. In modern times, think of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), or the seven dwarfs, or the seven-year itch, or the seven digits commonly used for phone numbers!

In this summary, the term leadership is not restricted to those at the top of large entities. It refers to people who are appointed or selected to be in charge of organizations, institutions, or countries (the capital L’s), as well as to those who find themselves directing smaller groups, teams, units, or departments within organizations (the small l’s). I would like to stress that organizations (and nations for that matter) require both capital L’s and small l’s. It is equally important to have group leaders scattered at every level in the organization. This is not to imply that we should have our organizations (or nations) populated by only capital L’s and small l’s: this would be catastrophic (too many chiefs and not enough workers!). To fully appreciate this last statement, allow me to quote the late Peter Drucker (a well-known management guru), “Managers do things right, while leaders do the right thing.” This is worth thinking about: managers are efficient, while leaders are effective. Preferably, a balance of leaders and managers should be sought. Ideally, some of those leaders will also be good managers, and some of the managers will be good leaders.

Let us summarize the seven roles (using easy to remember metaphors):

The Leader as Gardener: Cultivating HR stresses the critical role of the Chief Executive Officer (and the Human Resources professionals) when looking after the most important asset of the organization: its people. A gardener carries out four main tasks:

The Leader as Gardener: Cultivating HR stresses the critical role of the Chief Executive Officer (and the Human Resources professionals) when looking after the most important asset of the organization: its people. A gardener carries out four main tasks:

  • Preparing the soil, utilizing the best people-oriented systems, policies and procedures.
  • Selecting the seeds, using competency-based recruitment and selection.
  • Taking care of the garden, which involves continuous performance measurement followed by coaching, training, and development.
  • Harvesting, including recognition, rewards, and celebrating success. Each of these tasks is translated into specific organizational actions that a successful organization must complete to ensure that HR is linked to its strategy. The results of such efforts are ultimately seen in the effective attraction, recruitment, retention, development, and motivation of those people who contribute to the successful implementation of the organizational strategy. Wise leaders must play an active role in shaping HR strategies and practices; those who completely delegate or abdicate this responsibility may end up paying a very high price. As leaders (gardeners), let us keep in mind that we reap what we sow!

The Leaders as Canada Goose: Three Leadership Lessons suggests that these Canada geese are actually wiser than some leaders or executives when it comes to: (1) teamwork, (2) delegation, empowerment and succession planning, and (3) humane behavior. Canada geese excel at all three practices—these birds know that these practices are critical to their survival. On the other hand, think of the huge sums of money being spent by human beings on team building. Or consider the problems that many small and large organizations are having with their succession planning. Or think of the low morale and inhumane treatment of employees; only bad companies dehumanize their employees according to Peter Drucker. Finally, witness the frequent slashing of workforce at the first sight of economic slowdowns—actions that may sabotage the long term strategy of an organization.

The Leader as Negotiator: Beyond Win-Win argues that many books on negotiation lack the strategic planning and thinking that negotiators must do—well before they face their counterparts. Questions (such as these) need to be considered before negotiations start:

  • Is win-win the right strategy for this situation?
  • Should we meet with one or more parties; or possibly setting up parallel negotiations with more than one party?
  • What are our (and their) short-term and long-term objectives?
  • What can be considered common ground or common interests, which can be reverted to if a deadlock is looming?

The Beyond Win-Win approach advocates the use of situational negotiation styles, whereby both win-win (integrative) and win-lose (distributive) styles have an important place in negotiation, depending on the context. Skilled negotiators must also learn the art of trading concessions; and how to counter the tough bargaining tactics that are often utilized by counterparts who will try to claim a disproportionate piece of an eventually enlarged pie. A wise negotiator knows that sometimes “no deal” is far better in the long run than a one-sided or ill-conceived deal. Lastly, negotiators are urged to take into serious consideration cultural differences (organizational and national cultures) that may have a significant impact on the outcomes of negotiations.

The Leader as Student of Cultures: A Worldly Mindset urges the leader to become a student of cultures. Here, “culture” describes both national and organizational cultures. For instance, the American business culture is different than that found in France or India or China. Similarly, organizational cultures differ (compare the cultures of IBM and Google, for example). The term worldly mindset refers to the ability to understand, respect, and appreciate how and why various cultures differ. It also means knowing that in this age of semiglobalization it is not enough to be global in outlook (which implies dominance and universalism) but to become worldly in thinking and behavior (implying intimate understanding and empathy). Worldly leaders are those who can manage with relative ease across cultural boundaries, be they corporate or national cultures. There are three key parts or attributes of a worldly mindset that are, I believe, critical for doing business internationally. These attributes are: (1) bridging cultures through cultural sensitivity, (2) developing future worldly managers (these first two attributes were covered by Muna and Zennie, 2011), and (3) formulating worldly business strategies.

The Leader as Captain: Strategic Thinking places emphasis on the thinking processes as opposed to the planning processes of formulating strategy. Henry Mintzberg (1994) correctly argued that strategic planning sometimes gets in the way of strategic thinking. The former has always been about “analysis” while the latter is about “synthesis”. Strategic thinking involves intuition, creativity and innovation, and searching for new markets where no competition currently exist (Kim and Mauborgne, 2005). The leader as captain of an exploration team may be required to steer his organization into uncontested territories, and into un-chartered waters or destinations. When formulating strategy, a leader and his team ought to utilize the helicopter view often—the ability to see the big picture, to see forest for the tree, and to keep an eye on both the forest and the trees. Seeing the big picture, however, is not enough if the historic and futuristic perspectives are missing. Finally, wise leaders have the critical task of communicating the vision and values of their organizations, and they must reinforce the vision and values by “walking the talk”, and continually measure progress on key metrics.

The Leader as Abacus: Beyond the Financial Bottom Line suggests that effective leaders need to be finance-oriented in addition to their original areas of strength whether it is marketing, manufacturing, law, strategy, or any other discipline. Demystifying corporate finance and its jargon is not as difficult as one would expect. Leaders must also understand the basics of finance and budgeting so they can detect, and deflect, the games that some managers play when it comes to budget and forecasts and their link to compensation. Arguably, a few of the leaders caught up in corporate scandals and the global financial crisis of 2008 simply did not have a firm grasp of their company’s true financial picture. Leadership is partly about increasing the value of the organization by containing expenses while at the same time achieving long-term growth and increasing profit margins. Leaders, however, must avoid short-termism and must be held accountable for strategies aimed at the creation of long-term value through innovation. Undoubtedly, this role cannot be totally delegated to the chief financial officer. Like anything else, it simply takes an inquisitive leader who surrounds himself with competent people, and is willing to ask tough questions when it comes to finance and the organization’s long-term performance.

The Leader as Acrobat: Balancing Work and Personal Life challenges leaders to balance their work and personal lives from time to time, before an imbalance leads to poor quality of life or poor physical or mental health. I have yet to meet a single leader (who is near or in retirement) who wished that he or she had spent more time at work. On the contrary, the most common regret was that of sacrificing family, friends, and health in favor of work. In an article on this topic (Muna and Mansour, 2009), we argue that there are compelling reasons for leaders and HR professionals to engage more seriously with the topic of work-life balance. How to effectively balance work with personal life requires a series of practical and personalized exercises that urge leaders to examine their past, present, and future; and then set and implement short and long term action plans to reach goals that are linked to their personal values and priorities. The final exercise allows leaders to track and measure their progress using a balanced scorecard. The reader will notice that act of balancing work and personal life is very similar to the process of strategy formulation.

In brief, the common thread in all seven leadership roles is strategic intent and thinking. As “gardener” and “Canada goose”, a leader looks strategically after the human resources. The “negotiator” thinks strategically well before meeting the other party. As a “student of culture”, the leader thinks and act in a worldly and strategic manner. Of course, the “captain or explorer” thinks and acts in a strategic fashion; and so does the “abacus”: both think long term and value creation. Finally, the “acrobat” balances work and personal life using the same processes utilized in strategy formulation.

References

Kim, W. C. and Mauborgne, R. (2005), Blue Ocean Strategy, Harvard Business School Press.
Miller, G. (1956), “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”, The Psychological Review, Vol. 63.
Mintzberg, H. (1994), The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Free Press.
Muna, F. A. (2004), “Cultivating HR: Leader as Gardener”, Organisations & People, Vol.11, No. 3, pp. 18-26.
Muna, F. A. and Mansour, N. (2005), “Leadership lessons from Canada geese”, Team Performance Management, Vol. 11, No. 7/8, pp. 316-26.
Muna, F. A. (2006), “Seven Leadership Roles”, International Journal of Commerce and Management, Vol. 16, No.1, pp. 51-6.
Muna, F. A. and Mansour, N. (2009), “Balancing work and personal life: the leader as acrobat”, Journal of Management Development, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 121-33.
Muna, F. A. and Zennie, Z. A. (2011), Developing Multicultural Leaders: The Journey to Leadership Success, New Edition, Palgrave Macmillan.