Leadership Roles and Issues

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify contemporary leadership roles
  • Discuss common issues leaders must face

Leadership Roles

Leaders are leaders because they’re asked to face new challenges and take on new roles all the time. The most successful of them are able to adjust and put their leadership skills to work in these new atmospheres. Let’s take a look at some of the demands today’s business are asking their leaders to shoulder.

Providing Team Leadership

several individuals hikingWe discussed teams and team management in an earlier module. But what of the organization that decides to adopt a team approach. Traditional leadership roles are very different from that of a team leader. How do leaders move from a world of individualism to one of teams?

The command-and-control aspects in the world of individualism no longer make sense in the team environment, so this is one reason why some leaders find it impossible to adapt. Those leaders that have a more authoritarian style are likely to struggle and even fail here. But those that have a strong participative leadership style might take to team leadership like an organizational duck to water, and a large percentage of those with other leadership styles can adapt and learn.

Leaders being asked to become effective team leaders are expected to share information, give up authority, trust others and understand when to intervene. They often act more as facilitators than they do leaders. It’s often a bit of a balancing act—especially at first—to determine when a team needs more autonomy and when the leader needs to jump in.


Leaders often assume the “management” responsibilities around a team, like coaching, handling disciplinary issues, reviewing performance, training and communication. In addition, team leaders need to take on these four roles:

  • Liaisons with external constituencies. The team leader represents the team to all external parties, including upper management, customers and suppliers. In this capacity, the team leader can obtain resources for the team, clarify expectations with outside parties and seek out information necessary for the team to do its job.
  • Troubleshooter. Team leaders are often called upon to solve team problems, whether they’re internal or whether they need external intervention, like gaining additional resources.
  • Conflict managers. When disagreements occur, the team leader helps to manage them in an equitable way and tries to minimize the disruption of the disagreement.
  • Coaches. Team leaders are looked upon to provide coaching and even some cheerleading, to support and improve the team’s performance.

It’s with these four roles that team leaders focus on managing the team’s external boundary and facilitate the team’s process.

Practice Question


an older man helping a young woman fill out paperworkLeaders are often called upon to share their knowledge and skill with less-experienced employees who are new or show potential to hold similar positions one day. Some companies have formal mentor programs that call upon their leaders to share knowledge and spend time with high-potential younger employees, and in other organizations it’s informal.

In a typical mentor/mentee relationship, the mentor provides guidance and assesses the skills of the mentee through observation and modeling. He or she would provide advice on handling a particular situation, and then follow up at a later time to understand the outcome of the mentee’s issue, guiding him or her through any fallout or feedback that may have occurred. A mentor might act as a sounding board for ideas the mentee has but is reluctant to share with direct supervisors. These actions help the mentee build skills.

Mentors also lobby on behalf of their mentees, helping them gain visibility through special assignments, helping them earn promotions or salary increases, and advocates for him or her in higher circles within the organization.

These are all great situations for the mentee, but what about the mentor? Do they benefit? Absolutely! Mentees provide the mentor, who is presumably at a higher level, unfiltered access to the attitudes and sentiments of the lower echelons of the organization. The mentor/mentee relationship is an important communication channel to identify issues before they become issues. Mentoring can also provide personal satisfaction to senior executives, who get the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience with others.

The organization also sees a benefit from a mentor/mentee relationship. Mentees are often more motivated and less likely to quit, so mentor/mentee programs directly impact innovation, motivation and turnover.

However, there are some drawbacks of the mentor/mentee program: women and minorities are less likely to be chosen, because mentors are, more often than not, white males, and people naturally choose to mentor those they relate to the easiest. However, organizations are creating formal programs to ensure that more women and minorities can benefit from this experience.

Practice Question

Issues in Leadership

Now that we’ve talked about the various roles a leader can be called on to fill, what about some of the bigger issues in today’s environment?

New Technology

A retail company is testing the use of artificial intelligence for their email marketing. An employee writes an email that lets their customers know about an event or a sale going on in the store that weekend. Artificial intelligence then writes seven more email subject lines for that same email. They send all eight to a test group of their loyal shoppers, and over the course of a couple hours, the company is able to determine which of those eight subject lines entices customers to open the email. That subject line is then put on emails to all the other loyal customers in the retail chain.

a person typing on a laptopThe objective of using artificial intelligence to write emails is to attempt to increase email open rates. In fact, this retail company is experiencing a 5% increase in open rates, which translates to approximately eight more transactions per weekend in each of the retail chain’s stores across the country.

A leader was once called upon to manage the employee who was clever enough to write a subject line that enticed customers to open emails. Now that leader is tasked with identifying technology that will help them increase the effectiveness of their email marketing programs, but they need to manage that technology, and the employees who are manipulating that technology for results.

Technology will disrupt the workforce (that retail company didn’t need to hire a marketer to write emails, after all) and it will provide all the “big data” the leader could ever want to make decisions about how to market to customers. Technology is an ever-changing tide of new information that’s difficult to stay on top of and difficult to manage once its within the walls of the organization. Leaders must find a way to provide guidance for employees, reinforce the company’s mission and vision, and incorporate these new options into daily operations.

Industry Disruption

Technology is often the fuel for industry disruption. Leaders today are unwittingly forced into change management situations when a new business model pops up and changes all the rules they’ve been operating under.

New Competition

Satellite dish and cable companies were charging outlandish amounts of money per month for their television services having entered most large markets thirty years before, disrupting the broadcast television market. They were getting fat off their profits when a little company called Netflix started sending DVDs by mail . . . and then went online. Netflix was a market disruptor, and other options like Hulu followed soon behind them.

Transactional leaders quickly found themselves smack in the middle of change management situation—trying to determine how their companies could reposition themselves and distinguish them in the market, and then provide that new vision to their employees.

Leaders at the U.S. Postal Service found themselves doing it when faced with FedEx; cab and limousine services all over the country found themselves doing it when Uber and Lyft arrived on people’s cell phones.

Has our last hundred years of research prepared us for the choppy waters these digital times have presented to us? Certainly, organizations are not just looking for the leader who can react to the industry disruption being forced upon them, but the leader that can do a little disrupting. According to research done by Forrester, a research and advisory firm, qualities that leader may need to have include:[1]

  • Ability to break barriers
  • Liberate talent and free people from “rules”
  • Be a model of behavior
  • Put innovation on display

If that seems a little vague, it is! As we move to a customer focused business world, industry disruption will continue to raise the bar to new and innovative heights. Leaders will either be leading the charge or responding in kind.

Dispersed Workforces

decorative imageA 2017 survey showed that 2.9% of all workers in the US worked from home.[2] As a leader, it’s challenging to keep employees connected to the company’s vision—and each other—when they’re not physically present in the workplace.

As one leadership assessment concluded, “Leadership is leadership. Being authentic, connecting with others, promoting inclusiveness, networking, and all of the interpersonal skills that build relationships and trust are always important.” The application of those skills, however, is different, and leaders must learn to be deliberate and intentional in executing those skills.

Dispersed workforces require an understanding of culture (as sometimes these virtual teams are global), an effort to include all members, and leadership focus on reinforcing goals, celebrating wins and maintaining a connection to the organization’s vision.

PRactice Question

Leaders assume roles and navigate issues so that their employees can perform at the highest possible level with as few disruptions as possible. Contemporary leaders face new roles and issues every day in this fast-paced world. Real leaders will continue to emerge as new situations present themselves.


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  1. McQuivey, James L., Michelle Moorehead, Ryan Trafton, and Kara Hartig. "Leadership In The Age Of The Customer: Customer-Obsessed Leaders Do Five Things Right." Forrester. April 26, 2016. Accessed May 07, 2019. http://www.forrester.com/report/Leadership+In+The+Age+Of+The+Customer/-/E-RES134101.
  2. Parris, Jennifer. "The State of Telecommuting in the U.S. in 2017." 1 Million for Work Flexibility. June 28, 2017. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.workflexibility.org/state-of-telecommuting-us-2017/.