Distinguishing Leadership Roles

January 28, 2008

In a movie, one character may yell and even strike another character. Actors train so that their emotions and actions appear lifelike on screen. They embody their roles when the camera is rolling. Later that night, however, these same actors might go out to dinner and laugh and joke the night away. They can and must separate themselves from their roles.

The President of the United States is called President even by those closest to him. Why? To remind him that he must stay in this role (even after his term is over). He is not George Bush the man; he is George Bush the President of the United States. The decisions George Bush (the man) might make could be very different than the ones he makes as President of the United States. We, the public, might have difficulty separating George Bush from the role he plays, but George Bush must act as leader of a large and diverse country, not as a private citizen.

If you are a supervisor, manager, VP, president, CEO, mother, father, coach, rabbi, pastor, etc., you are playing leadership roles. In these roles, you are leading a part of an organization or the whole thing. The role that you play is not who you are as a person. You will put your own personal stamp on that role, but you are not the role itself. This is an important distinction to make.

Why is this so important? For one, the questions you ask and the decisions you make will often be different. The other day, the woman behind the counter at The Dollar Store asked my daughter, “Do you think you should carry that much money with you?” when my daughter opened her wallet. A few days later, my daughter was at Old Navy and set her purse down while trying on some clothes; before she knew it the pursue was gone. An employee found it in one of the changing rooms without the money inside. You can imagine my daughter’s disappointment and regret.

That evening when I called her from Chicago, she shared the day’s events with me. Gary wanted desperately to be empathetic and loving. The voice of Gary was loud and clear—make your daughter happy, relieve her pain, and give her the money that was lost. It was not a huge amount of money to me, but it was the world to her. Instead, I listened, but I didn’t take her off the emotional hook. She was not in imminent danger and, in the long term, she will be better equipped to own and learn from her decisions by suffering the loss of money now. She needed her Dad, not Gary.

I have played many different roles: president, board member, follower, parent, child, and congregant. My personal reactions and beliefs don’t fluctuate all that much. Only when I know and respect my roles, however, do I do justice to myself and others. Sometimes I let my private convictions be made known, but at the end of the day, I will act in the best interest of those I’ve been charged to represent.

As an Executive Coach, I could benefit by asking easy questions—questions that played to the strengths of individuals or organizations. In so doing, I could get more work or even business equity. I owe it to my clients, however, to challenge them to improve their performance. I ask the difficult questions.

As a business leader and in your other leadership roles, be clear about your role—to yourself and others. Be aware of shifts from you, the person, to you, the leader. Depending upon the situation and setting, your charges will expect constancy and selflessness.

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