What’s the role of a leader?

Suzan Bond
May 9, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

It seems like a simple question, right? When I asked my leadership-centric twitter feed to finish the sentence, “A leader’s job is too…” there wasn’t one consistent answer defining the role of a leader. The themes varied: inspiration, empowerment, vision, growth. Offline, someone else asserted the job of a leader is to provide resources to their people. Others might say that a leader’s job is to meet the OKRs of their area so they can continue to grow and add headcount.

While there are similarities, these “jobs” ascribed to leaders are actually divergent in a practical day-to-day sense. Inspiring your team is quite different from providing them with opportunities to develop their skills or a main focus of equipping them with resources. My Twitter conversation clearly lacked one single shared vision of leadership. I suppose that’s to be expected when you ask a bunch of strangers or even friendlies a question like this. They aren’t a codified community working towards a common goal. Still, I don’t think there is one definition of a leader that would describe all who fill this role. It means very different things to different people. It also changes by organization, culture and even phase of business.

Humans make assumptions

“Big mistake. Huge.”

Assumptions about what it means to lead have real world consequences. This isn’t just a theoretical conversation or philosophical question grad students might ponder over stale coffee and cigarettes. For example, founder relationships break up, fairly often. Sometimes it’s business direction or a desire to refocus a career; too often the culprit is a disagreement about navigating the leadership of the company. One might care about team empowerment seeing it as the way to get business results while another focuses on skill development to add capacity to the team so it can ship faster. More than one scaling startup has had its growth limited by divergent ideas on how to lead a company.

The impact of this confusion isn’t limited just to the founders. Leaders fail at alarming rates. It’s easy to blame the personal failings of an under-performing leader or a lack of skill. Sometimes we talk about this as the person not being ready. These things might be true but a lack of agreement on expectations is often just as responsible. When I coach a leader who feels like they’re failing, often the real problem isn’t their performance; it’s a lack of alignment with the CEO on what it means to be a leader at the company. Said more plainly, failing leaders frequently don’t understand what’s expected of them.

When I ask execs whether they’ve talked about expectations with the CEO or as a team, the answer is inevitably no. After the interview or promotion, expectations aren’t outlined. Instead they’re stepped overas on the way to meeting the business objectives. Compounding the focus on business results, new leaders step into the role, imposter syndrome often accompanying them. They don’t ask what’s expected of them because they think they should know and worry that if they ask, they’ll look incompetent. I get them impulse, it’s hard to say you don’t understand or to ask for clarity — especially as you step into a larger leadership role. Sidestepping direct conversations about expectations is a big reason leaders focus on the wrong things, flounder and sometimes…fail out.

Not understanding expectations isn’t just a big reason leaders fail, it’s also why some exec teams have ineffective meetings or never seem to find a cohesive way to move forward. They’re not working with the same definition of what it means to lead. So much of this can prevented by making sure there’s clarity and agreement on the role and accompanying expectations.

Leaders have to be willing to have the hard conversations.

It start with a conversation and simple questions

What is the role of a leader?

What’s expected of a leader?

What does good leadership look like?

What does “failed” leadership look like?

Be careful not to stay on the surface with stereotypes. You know what I’m talking about — they’re the kind that come out of 1980’s textbooks. Dig deeper. Consider different styles of leadership and modes of reaching results. Talk in-depth and at length until you understand what the company needs most from its leaders right now.

There are many possibilities:

  • transparency
  • disseminate information
  • build capacity in the team
  • sketch out a compelling vision
  • develop the careers of the team
  • create bridges across the org to ease collaboration

Asking people to talk about their ideas of leadership might not feel comfortable; direct questions might feel awkward. These questions could also lead to challenging conversations. Do it anyway. It’s worth it — they will allow the macro level expectations to rise. The resulting clarity will make decisions easier for leaders to perform effectively, and bring more cohesion to the exec team as well as to the entire company.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

When do you talk about expectations?

Have the conversation as soon as new leaders come on board — those hired in at a leadership level and, those promoted from within. Unless you’ve articulated this clearly and widely to the entire team, don’t assumed new leaders promoted from within have a good enough grasp on it to put it into action. Make it a conversation; give them a chance to ask questions. Set aside business for a few minutes during 1:1s to talk about expectations. (You are having 1:1s that aren’t just about business right but include their growth right? If you aren’t, start immediately. It will pay dividends).

Another good time to talk about the role of leaders? During challenging times impacting the company whether they’re internal or originate from outside. External landscape changes like the pandemic of 2020, demands changes. This means the norms for how the team works are likely to be demonstrably different. As the team pivot to new ways of working and altered priorities, expectations for leadership should be addressed too. Having conversations about the way work gets done helps bring all those assumptions to light so you can examine them.

Again, this isn’t a theoretical discussion. In the early stages of the pandemic, companies were forced to suddenly evaluate nearly every aspect of their business, making company-wide shifts that impacted not just every leader but every employee. Many leaders dug right down into the trenches assessing information and taking action. Long-term strategies were quickly abandoned for day-to-day oversight. Some exec teams even met every day as a group or began having daily 1:1s with their folks to get details. Some in the leadership stack (Managers, Directors and even some VPs) found much of the autonomy they’d gained suddenly taken away. While it was likely sensible under constrained conditions top leaders faced as they tried to make sense of a while new reality, it’s a radical shift in the expectations of the role.

While this response may have been warranted early on in a crisis, unless done consciously and directly communicated, over time this can cause confusion for the executives but also for their direct reports. Having decisions taken away from you or being made as a group can be jarring and upsetting. This can cause stress, confusion and concern for career trajectories. If left to linger or not addressed directly, conflicts can begin to rise, leading to rifts and chasms that can’t be crossed.

When a crisis comes, have a conversation about what it means to lead under these conditions. It will bring out assumptions, allowing the team to grapple with questions about their role, come to agreement and avert conflict down the road. Once the leadership team has agreement, spread it widely across the entire company. Team members have their own assumptions about what it means to be a leader. Their expectations for leadership might diverge greatly from how the exec team sees their role. Communicating this directly, reiterating often also ensures a chasm doesn’t develop between leaders and the rest of the team.

How to prevent schisms and reduce leader fail-outs

So, what is the role of a leader? It starts with a conversation. It’s simple and yet hard but oh so worth it.

  • Talk about what it means to be a leader
  • Find agreement
  • Communicate
  • Revisit when conditions change

Wash. Rinse. Repeat as often as necessary.

Interested more insights on career, executive coaching and leadership? Follow me on Twitter or learn more about my work.

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Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. www.suzanbond.com Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. www.suzanbond.com Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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