Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How to Gain Role Clarity and Lead from any Position

To lead while being clear about one’s role requires a shift from being a smart leader to become a wise leader. Wise leadership involves knowing the limits of smartness. It contextualizes your smartness and helps you act with role clarity, humility, and intuition to be effective in your life and organization. Readers of this article will learn how to make this difficult transition

Published: Jul 10, 2013 06:35:06 AM IST
Updated: Jul 9, 2013 12:00:26 PM IST

“More important than the quest for certainty is the quest for clarity” — Francois Gautier, French writer and journalist. 

In the context of a business, role clarity means knowing that your role as leader is just that—a role, not your identity. Today you are a director in one company, tomorrow you could be a vice president in another company, and a year later, you could be an entrepreneur. These are merely work roles you play to contribute to the development of your organization and yourself. They also could be very different from who you actually are. This is why role clarity is so critically important: It enables you to perform a chosen role effectively and display behaviors corresponding to that role with enthusiasm, and without losing the sense of your core identity or “the real you” that is behind any given role.

Being merely smart is not sufficient to deal effectively with the complexity of 21st-century business realities. Leaders need to become wise. Leaders who are highly intelligent but not yet wise—those whom we call “smart leaders”—tend to judge and attach a meaning to their role because they view roles through the different glasses they wear. Roles are actions or activities assigned to, or expected of, a person in different contexts (like wearing sunglasses, reading glasses, or driving glasses at different times). Core identity is a person’s conception and expression of one’s values and beliefs and, more accurately, oneself. The distinction between role and identity is important, since leaders sometimes mistake their work role (effective performance of tasks) for their core identity (who they are), which can keep them from seeing clearly and making wise decisions. It’s akin to finding one’s home to be very dark, forgetting that one is wearing dark sunglasses.


In this article, I will try to help leaders understand the crucial difference between role and identity and how they can apply that understanding to be an effective leader.
Steve Jobs
In the mid-eighties, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was having second thoughts about John Scully’s leadership, even though Jobs had brought Scully in to run Apple, and even though Jobs was continuing to play two roles— the operational executive in charge of Apple Macintosh reporting to Scully, and the chairman of the board (to whom CEO Scully reported). In 1985, Jobs attempted to overthrow Scully. He failed and was asked to give up his operational responsibilities (and asked to stay as the “nonexecutive” chairman of the board). Jobs was so emotionally invested in Apple that he could not let go of his operational role. He felt that his identity was closely connected with it. Because of that role confusion, he left Apple and started NeXT. Much later, he was able to understand role clarity and found that he could be CEO of both Apple and Pixar. He was much more hands-on in his Apple role, while he let others lead in his Pixar role. With such role clarity, he contributed to the success of both companies.

Like Jobs, some leaders, through reflection and introspection, identify and consciously change their glasses based on the context, so that they can be effective in whatever role they take on. Wise leaders play their roles with enthusiasm, but without emotional confusion or rigidity. Because they are clear that their roles will not define or limit their identity, they can lead from any position, not worrying about power and control. When it is clear that somebody else could play their role better, they feel comfortable giving it up and supporting that person to become an effective leader (like Jobs did with John Lassiter in Pixar). That is exactly what Bill Gates also did when he realized that his testimony to the Department of Justice in the 1990s damaged his credibility as the head of Microsoft and led to the court order to break up Microsoft. Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, gave up his CEO role, became chief architect for some time, and then gave up his operational role in Microsoft completely. He then started working full-time with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Until now, we have focused on how smart leaders can become wise leaders by gaining role clarity. In the next part of the article, we further differentiate smart leadership into two broad types and highlight the challenges with role clarity. It is important to clarify that all of these differentiations are based on our behavior, and to note that we can consciously modify our behavior to operate as wise leaders. In our research (as documented in our book, From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom), we identified six capabilities that all of us possess, and how our conscious and subconscious biases toward certain behaviors change how we translate our capabilities into leadership behaviors. Gaining role clarity is one of the most important of these six capabilities. In the last part of this article, we will present five behaviors that distinguish wise leaders from smart leaders vis-à-vis role clarity—and what smart leaders can learn from others who successfully operate as wise leaders more often than not.

Two Types of Smart Leaders
When we talk about smart leader versus wise leader behaviors, smart leaders typically fall into two broad categories: functional smart and business smart. Functional smart leaders are those who generally excel in one field or function, such as R&D or operations. Their focus is short-term, they are cautious in taking risks, and they are effective in execution roles. Business smart leaders, on the other hand, act as big-picture thinkers, visionaries, and risk takers with a competitive drive. Both styles of smart leadership behaviors have serious limitations when it comes to role clarity.

Functional smart leaders’ challenges with role clarity
Functional smart leaders sometimes find it difficult to take full responsibility for their roles because what they do is a means to an end—once the process is agreed upon they follow it to the end. So when a crisis hits, they tend to disengage quickly, without thinking through all the implications. They tend to ignore their personal emotions and ethics in favor of focusing on getting the job done and producing results according to the role definition. When Tim Cook was chief operating officer of Apple, for example, his role was to focus primarily on boosting Apple’s operational efficiencies. But he was so focused that he overlooked the poor working conditions. Only after he became CEO (and evolved into a wise leader) did he pay attention to the ethical concerns raised by the media about Apple’s supply chain activities. Cook got more engaged with the issue in the past year, went twice to China to inspect his subcontractor’s factories, and had Apple join the Fair Labor Association.

Functional smart leaders are generally challenged by role clarity because they like to act on tangible issues within their domain and leave bigger philosophical or ethical questions that cut across domains to their superiors. In other words, they focus on the “how” of their role rather than worry about the “what” and “why.”

Similarly, in 2012, Barclays Bank paid a large fine and lost its CEO (Bob Diamond) and COO (Jerry del Missier) when it was found to have manipulated LIBOR rates. In the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, Diamond sent a memo to John Varley (then CEO of Barclays) about a phone conversation he had just had with Paul Tucker, the deputy governor of the Bank of England. Tucker is supposed to have said (apparently falsely) that other banks were quoting lower LIBOR rates than Barclays. According to Diamond, del Missier, who was copied on the email Diamond sent to Varley, misunderstood this memo as an order from the Bank of England to lower the rates, and passed it on to brokers, who in turn falsified the LIBOR rates. Functional smart leaders like del Missier tend to stay with the same role for a long time, because over time they get proficient at it and feel comfortable to the point where they become reluctant to change roles. Put simply, functional leaders may lose their core identity (including their values and beliefs) in the process of playing their roles.

Business smart leaders’ challenges with role clarity
Business smart leaders, on the other hand, let their identity dictate their roles. Business smart leaders identify themselves with their role so much that they can’t emotionally separate themselves from it. These types of leaders often struggle with role clarity because their pride is part of the role they are playing. They operate with a strong sense of ego boundaries and retain their identity even when they are fully immersed in a role. Also, their attachment to certain ego-based outcomes makes it difficult for them to give up the role and perks associated with a particular role. An example of the business smart leader is Bob Diamond, the aforementioned former CEO of Barclays. He was paid £30 million in salary in 2011. As the Libor scandal broke, a defiant Diamond refused to relinquish his CEO role. Eventually, he was forced to resign under pressure from the British government, with a £20 million severance package. This resulted in a public outcry that led him to forgo the £20 million package and settle for £2 million.

While functional smart leaders ignore the ethical and legal concerns, they do so because they focus on the framework within their area of expertise and become blind to what is outside of the box. On the other hand, business smart leaders tend to believe that the end justifies the means. When they are performing a role, they consciously make decisions to focus on the desired outcome; if ethical and legal concerns get in the way of results, they will be ignored. Even if business smart leaders have some doubts about the ethical basis of their planned action, they tend to override their doubts. According to a recent survey of 500 senior executives by whistleblower law firm Labaton Sucharow, nearly one quarter of all Wall Street executives believe that “wrongdoing in the work place is key to success.”

Business smart leaders are also limited by the fact that they cannot act as a steward or a servant leader because they know they have great influence and power in swaying others, and that it feels good and appropriate to do so. Perhaps it is because they feel so good about their power and influence, but they cannot let go of their ego. Thus, they are unable to allow others to make their own mistakes and help them without being judgmental, and to guide them, with empathy and compassion, to discover their own genius.

The wise leader and role clarity
There is a third type of leader — the wise leader. Wise leaders are not confused between what and how it needs to get done (ends and means) and who is best at carrying out that role. They are willing to play the role of a servant or a leader based on the context and in either role; they have clarity about their identity and do not confuse their role and identity or allow one to dominate the other. They act as stewards or servant leaders in whatever roles they have (like good actors who not only play their parts well but also help others around them to excel in their parts). Wise leaders know when to lead and when to let others do so—and they never get caught up in any role they choose to assume because they allow their behaviors to be guided by a higher or noble purpose.

N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, is such a leader. He demonstrated this role clarity and commitment to the concept of a noble purpose throughout his own career. Realizing that he was “a capitalist in mind, [but] a socialist at heart,” he went on to start Infosys in 1981, describing his company as an “experiment in entrepreneurship to create wealth legally.” It was Murthy’s socialist view on the distribution of wealth that made Infosys one of the first Indian companies to offer employees stock-option plans. As a result, he helped create thousands of millionaires when Infosys went public in 1991. Murthy decided to share the company’s experience of the CMM (Capability Maturity Model) certification process with all its Indian competitors after Infosys got the highest level of certification. (CMM is a methodology used to develop and refine an organization’s software development process. The model describes a five-level evolutionary path of increasingly organized and systematically more mature processes). He believed that by helping his rivals become certified at the same level, the entire Indian information technology services sector would become globally competitive and attract more investments from multinationals, something that in turn would also benefit Infosys. Murthy has demonstrated remarkable role clarity throughout his career and he was able to apply that clarity to make wise actions and decisions.

Five ways to practice wise leadership in your role
1. Perform the Role without Emotional Attachment.
Wise leaders perform whatever role they take on without emotional attachment—assuming that role with what one might call detached engagement. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the CEO of Biocon, a leading Indian biotech firm, invested many years and millions of R&D dollars in developing an insulin solution that might have been a breakthrough in the field of diabetes care. But when some of the initial clinical trials failed to validate the effectiveness of the oral insulin solution, Mazumdar-Shaw was willing to reevaluate the whole R&D project without emotional drama. She even considered terminating the project if the clinical data did not justify continuing the research efforts. Although she was willing to give up her role of leading the project, she remained committed to her noble purpose: to find an affordable cure for diabetes.

2. Lead—or mentor others to lead—with enthusiasm and clarity.
Wise leaders are able to consistently demonstrate role clarity in that they lead with enthusiasm and clarity from the front, or conversely, they lead by mentoring others in the front to succeed, often taking a supporting role with the same enthusiasm and clarity. Many wise leaders seem to feel that each role they play has an opportunity for leadership—to be a directive leader or a servant leader. They are not caught up in their role and the power that usually comes with that position, and they are willing to cede their power voluntarily. Seeing himself as a trustee, Murthy, CEO of Infosys, had no qualms about letting go of his position when he turned 56. He wanted to give others a chance to lead the company and, in fact, saw it as part of his duty to ensure a smooth and well-considered transition.

3. Be a great team player.
Wise leaders are great team players; they seek partnerships and collaborate with others instead of wanting all the glory and rewards of a leadership position. They recognize that leadership is primarily a stewardship role that consists of developing others and producing value through others. Wise leaders are discerning about the role they want to play; they have the self-awareness to know which roles they are fully qualified to assume and which ones are better left to others. Legendary investor Warren Buffett, for example, realized that great investors don’t necessarily make great philanthropists. Rather than set up his foundation and try to run it himself, he instead chose to donate tens of billions of dollars of his personal fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for charitable work (he pledged to donate 99 percent of his wealth to the foundation).

4. Be authentic in any role. Wise leaders infuse their role with enthusiasm and authenticity. Whatever role they choose to perform, they project their authentic self—the true essence of their being—through that role and show genuine enthusiasm and a determination to get the best job done. In artistic terms, wise leaders bring credibility to their professional role by projecting their personal charisma and energy. Leaders like Mark Milani, a former senior vice president at Oracle Corporation, discipline themselves to focus on what works and tune out the noise. In doing so, they cultivate staying power in their role without getting emotionally drained by it. In his role at Oracle, Milani had to manage the conflicting needs and expectations of several stakeholders: his top boss, Larry Ellison (founder and CEO of Oracle), who is a big-picture leader and usually operates like a business smart leader; his immediate boss, who was a committed operations leader and more of a functional smart leader; and his customers, who wanted everything to be delivered yesterday. Rather than trying to please all stakeholders at the same time, which would have drained him emotionally and physically, Milani learned to prioritize these stakeholders’ requests and manage their expectations differently.

Wise leaders like Milani discipline themselves to focus on what works and tune out the noise. In doing so, they cultivate staying power in their role without getting emotionally drained by it.

5. Seek role clarity continually and mindfully. Wise leaders may lead from the front (using delegation, mentoring, or guidance when operating as the designated leader) or lead from the back (using influence, taking responsibility and ownership to get the job done when playing a subordinate role), or let others lead (when being part of a team with peers). Seeking role clarity is a continuous process of developing oneself while developing others, a process that requires mindfulness to be effective and bear fruit. Mindfulness allows you to pay attention to the changing context and see the role and the person playing the role distinctly and without prejudice. It allows you to be present and engaged as opposed to distracted. It facilitates self-awareness by allowing you to simultaneously focus your attention in a deliberate manner on one’s body, thoughts, feelings, and external context at the same time. Being mindful, you see things as they are and observe yourself. This ability to perceive clearly without judgment helps you gain a deeper understanding of who you are as a whole person—in relation to the world around you. You are able to play multiple roles with ease without getting caught up with any one of them.

Todd Pierce, former chief information officer of Genentech (currently an executive vice president at, introduced the company’s IT staff to mindfulness-development techniques so they could broaden self-awareness in order to improve their performance. Employee engagement in the IT department increased from the time when Pierce took over the department in 2002 to the second-highest company-wide in 2009, the year Computer World magazine ranked Genentech as the second best employer for IT professionals. Genentech employees have shown that they can cultivate self-awareness—and act mindfully—even in the midst of their busy work life. They reported increased engagement and productivity at work, and said that they had increased their ability to self-observe and self-correct. They also reported better listening and peer-coaching skills, and 80 percent said they were better able to deal with change and ambiguity. Many employees were more confident in handling bigger and more challenging projects.

To lead while being clear about one’s role requires a shift from being a smart leader to become a wise leader. Wise leadership involves knowing the limits of smartness. It contextualizes your smartness and helps you act with role clarity, humility, and intuition to be effective in your life and organization. Such reframing will help you let your authentic self shine through every role you perform and influence others to choose the wise leader path.

Reprint from Ivey Business Journal

Reprint from Ivey Business Journal
[© Reprinted and used by permission of the Ivey Business School]