Much has been written about leadership and leaders. Are they born or made? Can you teach leadership? What are the characteristics of a great leader? And so on and so on. What is frequently omitted, however, is the question ‘What does a leader actually do?’. What is the job of leadership? It’s as though we think the answer is obvious, but it’s not. When this question is addressed, the focus is often on the aspects of leadership related to people, such as how to inspire others to follow you. But there is more to leadership than this. It’s useful, for example, to work out which direction to go in the first place.
A relatively recent leadership model, based on years of research (which just this week was short listed for a Business Psychology award) takes a much broader perspective. The Primary Colours leadership model, developed by psychologist Dr David Pendleton – and owned by his consultancy, Edgecumbe – covers three major areas of leadership and the interaction between them. It also demonstrates, incidentally, that psychologists are not just interested in the ‘touchy feely’ stuff. So if you’re in a leadership position, you might want to think about how much time you spend on each of these leadership tasks. Chances are you’ll gravitate to some more than others.
The Primary Colours of Leadership
As you can see there are three major areas (or ‘domains’) where leadership is required – strategic, interpersonal and operational. You could think of them as ‘head, heart and hands’. Each domain has its own tasks. There’s also an additional task which overlays the whole model, Coping With Pressure. You’re not much use as a leader if you become a wibbly mess in the corner during a crisis or throw your toys out of the pram if someone disagrees with you.
Where are you going and how will you get there?
Let’s start with the strategic bit. One of the first tasks of leadership is Setting Strategic Direction. Whether you’re leading a small project or a multi-national corporation, you need to know where you’re going, how you’ll know when you’ve got there and, maybe, what you’ll do after that.
Where the strategic domain meets the operational domain, you have the task of Planning and Organising. You need to work out how you’re going to get to wherever you’re going. You need structures, systems and plans and some way of tracking progress.
Where the strategic domain meets the inter-personal domain, you have the task of Creating Alignment, which is a fancy way of saying ‘getting everyone pointing in the same direction’. No one’s going to guess what you want, so you need to explain your plans clearly in a language appropriate for the audience – generally different in the boardroom from on the shop floor. Creating Alignment is also likely to involve a degree of persuasion. If your strategy is to become the best in your market in the South West, for example, but someone on your team thinks you should be expanding geographically as fast as you can, then you need to get them on board before they start exploring opportunities in Birmingham or Glasgow – or complaining that you won’t.
The ‘people’ bit
The core task in the inter-personal domain is Building and Sustaining Relationships. That’s with everyone – customers, suppliers, peers, staff, shareholders and anyone else who can make a difference to the success of your organisation. ‘Sustaining’ is a really important word here. This isn’t about getting on with people for just long enough to get the job done or having the gift of the gab to make a sale. It’s about being a reliable, trustworthy person. It’s about putting in the time and effort required to build working relationships that endure, so that when you need it, people are there for you.
Where the inter-personal domain meets the operational domain, you have the task of Team Working. Getting on with people is all very well but you have to get them doing something. Team working involves ensuring that you have the right people, with the right skills, that they know what they’re doing and can work well together without getting in each other’s way.
Getting stuff done
The core task in the operational domain is Delivering Results. You actually have to get stuff done. This is the bit that people think psychologists aren’t interested in. We’ll try and make you ‘people focused’ instead of ‘task focused’, right? Well no, actually. It’s not either/or; it’s both. Whether you’re a commercially-focused team running a supermarket chain or a caring, sharing, values-driven bunch building an orphanage in Zambia, you have a job to do. Your task as a leader is to make sure that job is done properly and on time – and to do something about it if it’s not.
Pulling it all together
So what’s that bit in the middle, called ‘Leading’? Well that’s the task of standing back and deciding where the focus of attention should be right now. Think of it as being like an orchestra conductor, deciding when to emphasise the percussion and when to bring in the strings. So if, for example, you find that performance is slipping, it’s your job as a leader to work out whether you should be rallying the troops to put in a bit more effort (Delivering Results), fixing some problems with systems and procedures that are causing inefficiencies (Planning and Organising) or dealing with some underlying issues in the team that are causing friction (Team Working).
The task of leading also involves knowing yourself well enough to know which bits you need help with and perhaps letting someone else take a lead in those areas, something I’ve discussed here before.
Who is it for?
At this point, I should declare an interest. When I’m not working with my own clients, I sometimes work with David Pendleton as an associate at Edgecumbe. We use the Primary Colours model on leadership development programmes at Said Business School, Oxford University, and to assess senior executives in multi-national businesses. I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful model – simple, yet comprehensive.
I also use it with my own clients, who tend to work in smaller businesses, typically employing a couple of hundred people, and have found it works just as well there. It’s just a case of adapting the ideas for the particular context. So if you’re a leader in an organisation of whatever size, you might want to think about which leadership tasks you do most often and which you find most challenging or tend to neglect. And if you’re not doing those bits, who is?
Leader: Justin Trudeau
Shaking hands: US Dept of Agriculture
Conductor: Leigh Wolf