What Roles Do the Most Successful Leaders Play? Six Roles Every Leader Should Adopt

I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of consultant friends. Our conversation turned into a debate about which essential roles leaders play. During our discussion, what became obvious was that our biases and experiences impacted what we each felt was important. Unfortunately, we were never really able to come to a consensus. Regardless of our individual experiences, there are key leadership aspects that dramatically impact our interactions with others. The following six leadership roles are critical to master if you want to be an effective leader. 

1. Leader as Communicator. Communication is a foundational element of leadership. Communicating a common vision and purpose effectively creates motivation to achieve individual, team, and organizational goals. Setting clear expectations allows for precise execution while saving time and avoiding inefficiencies and redundancy.  Clear, specific, and respectful feedback allows individuals to improve their performance in a culture of mutual consideration and esteem. Positive feedback and expressions of appreciation and recognition not only increase motivation, but also reinforce the key behaviors required for continued success. Being able to recognize the signs of employee disengagement and knowing how to discuss options for re-engagement is critical for leaders to reenergize and refocus the efforts of their people. 

Effective leaders also know how to resolve conflict. They are not derailed by overly negative or emotional employees. They can separate the “hot” emotion from the message, defuse defensiveness, and identify what is important to the individual as they manage the interaction to find creative solutions. 

2. Leader as Connector. Effective leaders know how to connect with others. They recognize the communication preferences of others and adapt to or match the styles of others to form connections. They know how to ask questions and listen to others so that they increase their understanding and establish rapport. 

I still remember the first interview I had with my manager in corporate America. He asked questions, listened without distraction, was candid in his assessments, and expressed interest in my goals and aspirations. Not once in my time working for him was he ever demeaning or belittling. He always sought to understand before he ever offered his perspective. In fact, I had to go out of my way to deliberately solicit his ideas and advice. His behavior inspired trust and loyalty and made me want to perform to the best of my ability. Knowing how to connect with and relate to others helps the individual employee feel valued—something often missing in working relationships.     

3. Leader as Collaborator. Collaborators offer support and assistance. They don’t just let people flounder and fail if an individual is stymied or stuck in a given situation. They look for opportunities to instruct, coach, and mentor others who are in need of support, enabling them to perform at their best. 

On September 11th, 2001, thousands of people fled the Twin Towers and surrounding area and ended up stranded on the lower end of Manhattan. The U.S. Coast Guard put out a call for help to all available watercraft and within minutes, hundreds of people in water taxis, personal watercraft, ferries, and many other kinds of boats responded. People came together and worked to evacuate 500,000 people in less than nine hours. This incredible effort was the largest sea evacuation in history. People organized themselves and looked to do whatever they could to care for and assist others. 

Leaders who act as collaborators recognize that every individual adds value and that the performance of each is a reflection of their own leadership. With that in mind, leaders look to support others in the achievement of their goals. They provide the necessary resources, time, and guidance that will help people to succeed. They offer hands-on support and facilitate others’ work effort. 

4. Leader as Creator. Being a creator is akin to being an innovator. Leaders in this role look to improve the quality of their results. They explore what is working and what is not. Once they identify bottlenecks, they look for ways to remove the obstacles that people are encountering. They also solicit candid responses from their employees in identifying the aspects of their work that are frustrating them the most. 

In the early days of Hootsuite, people had to get permission to give away company swag to potential or existing customers. One employee wanted to permission to give a customer a company t-shirt with the Hootsuite logo. Because the system for gaining permission was unspecified and unclear, the employee calculated that by the time his request went up the organization chart for approval, the price of the shirt would have ballooned to at least $200. Leaders get things done, but effective leaders are also interested in how things are done. They want to know what can be done more efficiently and they enlist the support of their people to do just that. These creative leaders look to improve bad or broken systems that waste time and money and frustrate everyone who has to deal with them. Whether leaders are innovating new systems and processes or remedying the old, it is important that in this role, they are working to find the best solutions. 

5. Leader as Celebrator. While closely related to being an effective communicator, this role is important on its own. Being a celebrator requires leaders to notice when people are making a contribution and expressing recognition and appreciation for the efforts people make. 

When I have mentioned the importance of saying something positive to employees, I have been disappointed when some leaders have pushed back and indicated that recognizing people becomes meaningless if it is done all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone likes to know when their performance is delighting their customers and their team members. Making positive statements about performance says, “I noticed what you did and I appreciate it.” Positive reinforcement strengthens and encourages the desired behavior and will produce better results. 

Years ago, I was tasked with creating a rewards and recognition program for a company. After conducting several focus groups and interviewing over 100 people to identify what employees valued most, I was shocked that more than 86% of the people involved in my study said that they most valued words of recognition from their manager. 

Sadly, such recognition often goes unmentioned. After doing some performance management training at a large telecommunications company, I had a participant approach me after the training and share with me that she had worked at the company for over 19 years, and that not once in that time had anyone ever thanked her for her work. Not good!

Taking on the role of celebrator can have a positive impact on people not only personally, but also on the quality of their work. 

6. Leader as Capacitator. Leaders seek to build the capacity of their people. Providing people with growth opportunities to develop new skills and to use those underutilized, will increase employee engagement. Employees want to know that their leaders have their best interests at heart. Helping people grow and develop not only increases job satisfaction and retention, but also fosters loyalty to their manager. 

Years ago, I had a young employee approach me during a break in our communications training. He asked me if I would coach him in how to hold a potentially difficult conversation with his manager who had repeatedly cancelled a meeting in which they were to discuss his individual development plan. I helped this employee plan and prepare his conversation with his manager. When the manager was asked about this situation later that day, he willingly admitted that he had not kept his commitment to his employee and then promptly scheduled a developmental conversation for the next day. The next day, the manager cancelled the meeting again, and three weeks later, the young employee took a job with another company. 

If you are not holding the types of conversations that explore your employee’s career goals and aspirations, you are missing an opportunity to not only gain a deeper understanding of the person, but also you may end up losing the employee to another opportunity. Create and support opportunities for people to grow and develop. 

Although there are additional roles we might consider, developing these six foundational leadership traits are important elements in being an effectual leader. As you can see from the characteristics we’ve discussed, building rapport, establishing connections, and working to enhance performance are critical components. Taking a moment to consider the kinds of roles you play and candidly assessing how well you are doing in each one will allow you to grow and strengthen important aspects of your leadership, leading to greater results.


Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, "3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence."

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.