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When I was 16, the president of our boy’s youth group dubbed his chief lieutenants, in his farewell address, The Idealist, The Realist and The Spirit. We were running to succeed him and the Idealist won. Ever The Realist, I felt pigeonholed by that description, because we each displayed all three attributes.

His labels captured an enduring dynamic we must straddle and was an introduction to what today is called leadership models. My leadership learning group recently discussed managing expectations in a complex environment – how much to lift people and how much to dampen expectations when leverage to change a situation is limited.

I spent many years working for a visionary leader, ironically recommended to him when he sought someone with ideas. In any given day, which of us was realistic and which one was idealistic might vary 30 times through conversations. But at crucial moments, he ignored realism to reach for more, bringing us along, some hopeful but unsure, others doubting but hopeful.

The first leadership models probably came from Plato. He shared seven analogies in his various writings: The shepherd, the doctor, the navigator, the artist, the teacher, the weaver and the sower. “Each one points to certain features of leadership, which we intuitively recognize to be important,” Oxford University philosophy professors Dominic Scott and R. Edward Freeman wrote in their 2021 book Models of Leadership in Plato and Beyond.

  • The shepherd cares for the flock, protecting them from danger, pointing to a leader’s need to be a servant to followers.
  • The doctor also focuses foremost on the well-being of patients, bringing specialized knowledge to the task.
  • The navigator, or sea captain, devises a plan to get people to their destination of choice.
  • The artist has vision.
  • A teacher communicates knowledge to followers, in order to raise their abilities; teachers are also open to questions from their students.
  • The weaver reminds us of cohesion, uniting different strands of wool into a single garment just as a leader must bring people together into a team aligned on a given purpose.
  • The sower is more hands-off, generating ideas and initiatives for others to take up.

“When we think about his list of models, the question is not which one of them is correct. They might all be, in the sense that they capture certain aspects of the extraordinarily complex phenomenon of leadership. Each model may have its place in different contexts,” they write.

Just as good leaders blend or alternate idealism, realism and matters of the spirit, we must be, at the appropriate times, shepherd, doctor, navigator, artist, teacher, weaver and sower. That might seem to contradict the common call for leaders to be authentic. But they must find this part of themselves, and embellish it – at times, perhaps to the exclusion of the other roles.

My favourite model, from Andrew Brown in The Six Dimensions of Leadership, included actor: Leaders must be consummate actors, using poetic, rhetorical, storytelling and showmanship skills to drive the organization. “The good performance is one that is authentic, believable and convincing. By contrast, the poor performance is one that appears contrived and self-conscious,” he observed.

Jay Campbell and Doug Glener, who both work for The Ken Blanchard Cos., recently surveyed more than 700 leadership, learning and talent development professionals to find out what skills leaders need most in these complex, turbulent times. They came up with three models: The compassionate leader, the kinetic leader and the perennial leader.

“Employees want leaders who care about them. They expect and need leaders who help them succeed, support their requests for a flexible work schedule, promote psychological safety and are trustworthy,” they write in Chief Learning Officer, about compassionate leaders.

Kinetic leaders manage organizational change, support change initiatives, drive innovation within their domain, adapt quickly to new challenges and solve problems creatively. Perennial leaders continue to hone their skills. They set clear goals, establish and change priorities, hire top talent, think critically, communicate clearly and understand themselves.

Mr. Brown, beyond actor, stressed the importance of leaders being heroes, role models and even icons for others to follow; immortalists, whose high self-esteem, visionary outlook and desire to succeed stands as a beacon to followers; power brokers; ambassadors; and victims. In that latter role, for the greater good of the team or organization, leaders must at times willingly or unwillingly take the blame for problems, perhaps suffering diminution of esteem or loss of power.

Donald Trump, of course, is now playing the victim, but not quite taking the blame. Justin Trudeau, derided by opponents as a mere actor when he came to politics, has played all those roles and may now, as his party drops in the polls, have to contemplate accepting the victim role.

Leadership is complicated. We must reach at times beyond our comfort zones to fulfill the needs of the moment, be it a dash of idealism, dedication to sowing or kinetic action. Failing to be multi-dimensional, clinging instead to our strengths in one-note leadership, ignoring the needs of the moment, can be dangerous. The many faces of leadership are also a reason to consider co-leaders, at all levels of the organization, to be more well-rounded.


  • Probing feelings about the future, the Survey of Business Uncertainty in the U.S. found an expectation among executives that remote and hybrid work will increase over the next five years.
  • If you want your team to focus on their top priorities, you shouldn’t schedule a wall of recurring meetings, says executive Julie Zhuo.
  • A new study suggests emphasizing how valuable diversity is for an organization is not as effective as telling employees in a more nuanced way that diversity is valuable for organizations but only if the challenges are overcome, such as people learning to successfully navigate the tensions that might arise. The first, more positive and more commonly used approach, is benevolent but can lead employees to see the diversity effort as unfair and therefore morally dubious, Lisa Leslie, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business explains. The less idealistic, contingent approach seems to increase diversity effort by staff.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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