7. Playing different roles

An essential part of leading beyond authority is the understanding that you will inevitably need to play different roles at different times in different situations. There are no hard and fast rules, so leaders will need to experiment and learn from themselves and others in order to work out which role (or combination of roles) is likely to be most useful in leading change. There are four roles:

  • Transformer
  • Rebel
  • Pawn
  • Expert idiot

Both rebel and transformer are roles that leaders can play to produce change. Rebels stand outside and demand change. Transformers produce change from the inside.

We need rebels in organisations. They have passion – and they don’t give up. They resonate, connect people, bug you. And they channel the energy in the organisation to create change.

Tom Cummings, Executive Learning Partnership

Transformers cared about problems other than their own. The most successful ones were those who stayed at the table the longest and saw things through. They also figured out how to legitimise their ideas, policies and ideologies.

Lord Simon, former Chair and Chief Executive, BP

Pawn and expert are roles people fall into or find themselves in as a result of their position. A pawn will often be a leader with great ability who is unwittingly serving someone else’s cause and not aware of their role. An expert will have a similar lack of awareness of the impact they can have on an existing situation, but will have a great amount of power due to the blind deference generally shown to people with a high degree of knowledge and expertise in a given field.

It is likely you have a tendency towards a preferred position – rebel or transformer – when leading change, depending on the situation in which you find yourself. It is your ability to consciously choose the most appropriate role for the situation that will improve your capacity to lead beyond authority.

Why think about this?

If you want to understand more about this, you may

  • Be currently leading change
  • Be about to take on a new project where it will be important to remain aware of what role will be most effective
  • Want to explore what the circumstances are that lead you to play one role rather than another
  • Feel trapped in a role and way of working, and want to become more aware of this and change it.