The Three Faces of Leadership

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This article was published in the Nov. 2003 edition of Hamilton, Ontario's BIZ Magazine under the title "Leadership's Triple Crown" LM

What does it take to be the head of a small business, a department manager, or even a corporate CEO? The effective director isn't one persona but three: a Visionary, a Manager, and a Mentor/Coach. A leader must be capable in all three roles and must have the proper perspective of their relative importance for him, in his position, at this time and place in his career. A tall order, complicated further by those roles never being static, shifting with circumstance, the business climate, organizational needs and with the individual's preferences and abilities.

The Leader as Visionary

The visionary is the one who handles the creation or inspiring of goal-directed action. This leader is the man, or woman, with the plan.

The senior manager, CEO, president, general manager or owner has a fundamental responsibility to "Create the Vision." The illusory definition of who, as a company, we are, what we do and why, where we are, where we're going and how we get there from here. Once that vision is defined -- and that's no easy task -- the leader must articulate it in terms the will enable, even compel, others to buy in and dedicate themselves to it. In other words, agree to follow. To quote author John C. Maxwell, "If you think you are a leader but have no followers, you're not leading, you're just going for a walk."

The visionary, however, is not just a dreamer. The plan must translate into action. The leader is the one who must outline a clear, specific, and effective strategy for bringing the vision to life. This "plan" isn't just a simple timeline. You can't say you intend to land on the moon next year without considering how to build the rocket required for getting there. The vision will fail without a reasonable estimate of the necessary resources, including capital, facilities, equipment, people and talents essential to a successful implementation. Determining what is needed, how to acquire it, and where best to deploy assets is fundamental to making a vision reality. Any map includes milestones along the road and a method for tracking results so that everyone involved knows at all times what progress is being made. You would run out of gas on the highway without a fuel gage. Don't expect your people to complete a journey without an idea of how far they have to go and what resources they have to get there.

A leader's ability not only to be a visionary but to convey that message powerfully enough so employees want to strive for that goal has a direct impact on the company's bottom line. The clearest example I know of this is two well-known Hamilton, Ontario companies located just down the street from each other but miles apart in direction, focus, and profitability. I'm talking of course about Canada's two largest steelmakers Dofasco and Stelco.

Dofasco, with a clear vision, and a history of strong leadership, is seeing major returns even during tough economic times for the steel industry as a whole. The story is completely different a few blocks away. At Stelco, there seems to be a focus on the bricks, mortar, and machinery as the corporate essence without a real sense of where the company is going and why. The absence of apparent vision and feeling of corporate destiny breeds apathy in the workforce and leads to no feeling of accomplishment or pride in their work. It's just a place to earn a living and to get away from as soon as possible. In a recent meeting with a Vice President I was told that in one mill, "wrench time" (the time that maintenance people actually charge to specific jobs) was down to 90 minutes per shift compared to the industry average of 4 hours, and no one can see a way to improve it.

While the absence of vision and poor atmosphere are not the sole factors in the company's decline, it's hard to argue with their lack of success. Stelco again reported a net loss of $82 million in second quarter 2003, more bad news after a first quarter net loss of $44 million.

Stelco is now trying to stop the hemorrhaging with a change in leadership. Jim Alfano stepped down as President and CEO in July, replaced on an interim basis with Fred Telmer, Stelco's Chairman of the Board. While Telmer heads the transition team, the search is on for a new CEO. "Has vision" should be at the top of the qualification checklist.

Results rest on the shoulders of the visionary, no effective leader acts alone. The senior leader may only create an initial "rough draft" of the company plan and must flesh it out through team input. But unless the leader has a clear vision of where he is going, the rough draft is likely to remain just that. He must guide the polishing process.

As the vision is disseminated deeper into the organization, internal leaders -- for example, the middle management, department heads -- are presented with an already defined goal but the process of articulating that vision and of directing the rest of the process through his or her level of responsibility is much the same as the view from the top. After all, leadership exists at every level in a company. Even when the plan reaches the "shop floor", every employee can learn to take responsibility for self direction in accepting personal responsibility for his or her actions, results and focus on the corporate goal.

The Leader as Manager

A manager, by definition, manages. In other words, the manager must plan the processes, create the rules, assign responsibilities, direct activity, provide training, focus efforts, control costs, measure progress and report on results. The "leader as manager" is the one with the "hard skills" -- the planning and organizing, the number crunching, the industry, equipment and process knowledge. This is the foundation of leadership on which true leaders build their soft skill development.

The key to being a successful manager-leader is the ability to troubleshoot. That is, to find solutions to problems and make effective decisions that will keep them from reoccurring. The manager shouldn't be just putting out fires; he should be preventing them. The ratio of prevented crisis to reactive problem solving is the main indicator of the effective manager-leader. If the leader is always running around with a bucket of water, sooner or later someone is going to figure out if he's always putting out the same type of fires. Either he lacks the necessary planning, organization, influence, and resourcing skills to manage or he has failed to build on his hard skill foundation to bring his leadership to the next growth level. If the leader brings nothing more to the role than the ability to problem solve, the company doesn't have a firefighter, it potentially has an arsonist -- someone who consciously or unconsciously creates the conditions that require his skill set. If the operation runs from one inferno to the next, when does anyone have time to grow the business? The company suffers. No matter how addictive the rush of being the "go-to" person can be, nobody can run on high octane forever. The leader, his performance, as well as his quality of life outside of work, all deteriorate. What the arsonist has done thinking it will make him essential will eventually burn him out of a career.

Time spent on the managerial role is on a continuum. The more junior the leader, the more time -- as much as 80 per spent -- is spent on the management functions. The senior executive dedicates less than 20 per cent of his time to "managing". While the CEO must always pay attention and be aware of what is going on, managerial tasks are an effective subordinate developing tool and are among the first to be delegated.

If a leader can not delegate, he creates a development and succession bottleneck. Essentially, he is limiting his own potential for advancement by not cultivating talent to take over. He becomes locked (at best) in his current position or (worse) shifted to even more managerial-heavy (and thus, lower on the leadership continuum) responsibilities. Moving forward requires the soft skills of leadership. Vision and courage are absolutely essential for delegation as well as the ability to trust others and to get of the way, allowing people to make their own mistakes.

As the leader grows, he must not only delegate his managerial tasks, but also transition from being "hands on" to "hands off". No one, particularly those higher on the corporate food chain, likes to be micromanaged. Being able to affectively assess the level of one's involvement and required degree of tracking in delegated assignments is the main skill leap between the leader as manager and the leader as mentor/coach.

Steve Thompson of Brantford, Ontario-based Stellarc Precision Bar is one executive mastering this tricky delegation balancing act in his leadership style. Thompson wasn't really sure where his skills needed development, he had only an uneasy feeling that he was spending a lot of time "spinning his wheels." So, he came to The Leadership Centre for support. When he began to recognize how much of a "hands on" manager he was, he resolved to make immediate changes. He reorganized offices, added responsibilities to all of his departmental managers and provided personal productivity, leadership and time management training.

His new focus on giving his managers the responsibility and authority to get things done -- rather than doing them himself -- has given him time and freedom to focus on new visions and new directions for the company as well as on some important personal goals. In the past three years he has more than doubled the size of the plant, added a million dollar state of the art bar processing line and brought in a new, dynamic plant manager all while reducing his own work week to about fifty hours from a grueling seventy hour schedule.

The Leader as Mentor/Coach

Some 80 per cent of people say they are not "engaged" at work. They don't like, respect or care about their company, their managers, their fellow workers or their customers. What's truly scary about this scenario is that the overwhelming number of these employees have no immediate plans to change jobs. They don't believe things are any better someplace else. Is there a measure of personal responsibility for this situation? Definitely. But whose job is it, ultimately, to help change the situation? The leader as mentor/coach.

Of the three fundamental roles of the executive, this is the one that most affects the continuing growth of both people and the organization. It is also the face of leadership requiring the highest level of soft skills. The mentor/coach must have the self confidence to not see growing the potential of others as personally threatening. The mentor focuses outward on results -- not inward on actions; on strengths and on what can be -- not on weakness and what is impossible.

The mentor maintains focus on the goal, the vision, and the "quest for the grail" that drives ordinary people to extraordinary performance. It has been said that everyone has it in him or her to be a superstar in some field, in some role. The mentor helps a person define his or her strengths to build on them, to strengthen them, to find or create a role where these strengths can be utilized to their fullest potential. With proper mentoring, a person's weaknesses -- and we all have them -- do not matter. People are driving their careers on a road that leverages their superstar qualities.

The mentor-leader grows individuals, departments, and the entire organization by helping to set SMART -- specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and timely -- goals. SMART goals at each level must reflect and support the overall corporate vision. By forging that link between individual performance and how it directly impacts on the bottom line, the mentor-leader is engaging the employee, making him or her part of the plan, not a victim of it. Influencing others through consensus building and buy-in strategies is a key mentor-leader skill.

Effective mentoring/coaching skills are at the root of a striking turn-around story at Hamilton's ailing National Steel Car. The company, founded in 1912, designs and manufactures railroad freight equipment. But the company was on a bumpy track a few years back until it brought in Dan Elliott, the former President of Wabco Freight Car products in Stoney Creek, as chief operating officer to help turn things. The previous owner/management seems to have been rather autocratic with little responsibility vested in even senior managers -- not at all in line with Dan's way of thinking -- and the company had slipped from its position as one of North America's leading rail car manufacturers. Employment had dropped from nearly 3000 to a mere 300 workers and the company's economic prospects looked grim.

With a senior management team of about a dozen vice presidents, many of them in their early to mid thirties, Elliott began the process of rebuilding the company's vitality. The mixture of youth and experience would succeed only if everyone believed in the future and proactively worked to make the corporate vision a reality. To achieve this, Elliott took on the task of mentoring his VPs in setting departmental and individual SMART goals and then monitoring progress.

The new focus on the vision, with everyone knowing where they want to go and committing themselves to getting it done, is working like magic. Not the process has been an entirely smooth one. The long term people found it difficult at first to accept and believe in the new responsibilities entrusted to them but now, just over a year into the transition, the VPs are emulating Elliott's style and their people, in turn, are emulating them.

Elliot supports his VPs on a daily basis, mentoring and coaching individually and collectively, while ensuring they know he believes in them, trusts their decision making abilities and is prepared to back them up. The result so far -- National Steel Car is regaining its top industry position, employee levels are back up around the 1500 mark and the company, despite overall market slumps, is making steady progress towards real profitability. Vision, mentoring and delegation of managerial responsibilities are combining here to make a huge difference.

Three leaders in one

To be truly great, a leader must comfortably and effectively wear all three "faces". Strong managers may not have a clear picture of where they are headed, dreamers may not get the job done and mentors will find it difficult to grow others if they are not first secure in both their own hard and soft competencies. Defining the fundamental skills required is the first step in developing one's leadership potential. The leader must then be willing to recognize his limitations and weakness and be committed to continuous learning and development. This sort of honest self-evaluation, willingness to build on strengths and address development areas is fundamental on the road to the top. That journey can span a career but the pay-off is a successful, prosperous and growing organization with you at the helm.

Len McNally is President and founder (in 1996) of The Leadership Centre, dedicated to leadership development, management team building and change management through executive and corporate coaching - from the top floor to the shop floor. With more than thirty years experience in sales, marketing and business development Len has for many years been an avid student of psychology, behavior and motivation. He still reads three to four books a month and has writen several book reviews for He can be reached at (519) 759-1127 or email: Other articles may be seen at:

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