The four roles of the CEO

Most people are thrust into a position of leadership from a high competence in a managerial or functional role. At that stage there is limited support as to how the role has changed and often it has still some managerial and functional components that new leaders often keep hanging on to.

This is in most cases a mistake and a leader has to focus on four key roles:

  • Creating a Vision for the unit that gives direction to the unit and everyone in it
  • Motivating staff so that they can focus on the key components of their individual tasks
  • Be a Reality Check
  • Resolve interdepartmental conflict, friction and division through Aligning them

The words will sound familiar and simple, but as "concept words" it is vital to also agree on their real meaning in terms of what the actions of the leader should be and what it means he or she does not do.

The consequence of this means the leader stops being:

  • A Critic. The leader should not place himself as a critic of what people do but rather a pointer in the right direction and providing the resources for people to succeed.
  • Part of Execution. There might be tasks when the leader has individual tasks to perform but these are not what leadership is.
  • An Expert. Again this might be something the leader is proud of but it is a role that he has to abandon.
  • A Problem Solver. This is only partially true as he still needs to resolve interdepartmental conflict, but he is not there to resolve the problems his departmental heads have in their day to day operational roles. Just as he/she needs to step up to their roles to do they.

Let us focus now a little more on the four roles.


Many visions are tautologies. Such as "Best in Customer Service", "The Leading Company". They might form some objectives but they are not truly useful. A good vision enables each person to make the right trade-off when making decisions. McKinsey, in their 7S model, called them "Superordinate Goals".

Google's vision is indexing all the world's information in 200 years. It enables people to know how each disparate component needs to focus on capturing and indexing information and that this is the core competence that underpins all their activities.

A good test of a useful vision is if the opposite of the vision is a possible good vision for someone else.


Motivation has two elements. One type of motivation is aspirational, that is to say creating a view of the future and the success they can expect encouraging them to put their efforts and attention in the task and engage with it. 

Another vital component is to remove fear and anxiety from the people in the organisation. Nobody engages fully in a task or organisation if they are full of fear and anxiety, as a large part of their thinking is focussed on reducing these very unpleasant emotions. The key to motivation is therefore to remove these fears and increase the confidence of all staff that however challenging the environment or task, they can make a valuable and sufficient contribution to it.

A leader does not deny the uncertainty of the future but reassures the members of the team that these are taken care of and that they will be protected, to the extent that this is possible, from any negative outcome as long as they focus on their tasks and do a good job.

Reality Check

All organisations develop habits and views of the world that is their own. This often creates delusions, blind sides and lack of self-reviews.

The leader is responsible to reduce these to a minimum and remind people of the reality outside their own environment. The trick is to do this without creating fear and uncertainty!


In most organisations, what each department is doing internally is done reasonably well and competently. What kills most of them is the interfaces and interactions between departments. This is often because these interactions are viewed as competitions for who is right and who is wrong, or who will get the majority of the credits or budgets for a specific activity.

The key challenge of the leader is to ensure that each department listens and takes the views and requirements of the other departments into account, in a non-judgemental way, but in a way of how to achieve the best outcome for the whole group.

Another alignment objective is to ensure that all practices and processes support each other and do not create internal conflicts. This was the great innovation of the 7S framework of McKinsey in the early 1980s.