How to develop good relationships as a leader – Roles Leaders Play

leadership role“And what do you do?”

How many times have you been asked this question? How many times have you asked it? My guess is more than once or twice.

Roles leaders play overview

We all play a number of different roles. Some are well developed, others less so. Using the right role in relation to another is critical for healthy relationships and better leadership.

When answering this question, most people respond with their job title or their job function: I'm a banker, I'm the CEO, I'm a teacher. Or they launch into their ‘elevator pitch'. We define ourselves often by the major role we play in life. And you know that you are much more than your job: I'm a CEO, husband, lover, uncle, child, brother, skier, scuba diver, teacher, sleeper, trainer, coach, friend, driver, passenger, dog-walker, saxophonist, cook, customer, eater, cleaner, golfer, author, writer, musician, listener, talker, leader, manager, accountant, salesman, communicator, website builder… and that's just the more positive ones today. Am I good at all these? Not all, and not always. There are days when my golf, for example, is fluent and near perfect; today was not one of those days. Today, I was a “shank it in the water, find every bunker, slice it out of bounds” golfer.


Roles Leaders Play Slides by Dr John Kenworthy

Normal role development

normal roles

A “Normal” role is developed when it is appropriate and complementary to the other role being played in the relationship

Everyone plays a number of roles in their relationships with others. The essence of personality, according to Raimundo, is the sum of the roles I play.

As a leader, the way we relate to other people is through a role. The role we play must be complementary and must include a common link. My effectiveness as a leader is dependent on the efficacy of the relationship which is the link between the roles. It is the “power” between me and another.

When we have two complementary roles relating to each other, a link is formed and is the channel of interaction; enabling the role to mature and grow stronger.

The strength of the link depends on the role we are playing each time we relate through the link, the role we are playing is developed. Some of the roles we play are poorly developed, some are well-developed. The good news is that we can develop less developed roles and so improve the effectiveness of our relating.

Our most developed roles are usually so because we have experience with a more established and complementary role. A good Father-Son relationship develops a strong son role and, in recognition of the strong role model, transfers to a strong father role later in life as well as strengthening the role of the father.

Roles we play can be Constructive, Fragmenting or Ambivalent.

Constructive roles

Constructive roles are formed when the role is a positive one and the way in which the role is played is also positive.

Constructive role development is a normal expectation as we exercise our roles in a complementary relationship.

In the ideal relationship, both parties have well-developed roles and are relaxed with each other allowing and enabling the link to be formed, and the power of the relationship (and hence the roles themselves) develop.

Think about the well-developed roles you exercise and on any roles that you think are poorly developed. What enables (or restricts) your development of these roles?

The effect of anxiety on personal space and role development

affect of anxiety on personal space

The personal space we require depends on our anxiety and tension.

Everyone has a space around them that we perceive belongs to us, our personal space. I'm sure that you have met someone who, you felt, was a little too close. Perhaps someone who put their face close to yours and made you feel intimidated or scared? I recall a sales meeting with a particular CEO, who talked to me with his face 2 inches from mine and kept it there the entire time. I honestly thought he was going to head-butt me.

When we are relaxed and at peace, our personal space contracts, other people can be closer, both physically and emotionally.

When we are fearful or anxious, our personal space expands.

So when that CEO came in physically close, I became tense and needed even more space than normally, making the situation more anxious.

When our personal space expands through fear or anxiety, this can interrupt or distort the operation of a particular role. In my own example above, my normal, well-developed sales role was smothered, and I wanted to run from the meeting.

Personal space exceeds role strength

When our personal space need exceeds the strength of a particular role, there is no link in the relationship

A (sadly) frequent example we hear from clients is the expansion of personal space after coming back home exhausted each evening from work and being unable to relate to a son or daughter as a parent. As a parent, I have three possible responses.

  1. Attack or withdraw (a reptilian, knee-jerk, emotional response).
  2. Adopt a better-developed role such as that of teacher or manager.
  3. Adopt a pseudo role.

Whichever the choice, the parent role does not develop if it is not used.

Consider the times that you feel the need for more personal space. What role were you playing? What role was the other person playing?

Role Deficiencies

Pseudo Roles

Pseudo roles

Pseudo roles are fed by real roles to “pretend” that we have developed this particular role. We try to “fake it to make it”… which doesn't work in the long term.

A pseudo role is a copied, non-integrated role. It does not develop because it is not fuelled by the actions, emotions, feelings and thinking associated with “normal” role. Such roles are not part of the “self” or “ego”, they are roles we adopt to cope with certain situations.

Pseudo-roles do not become integrated into the self which only incorporates authentic roles. They are especially evident with people who have suffered high-stress levels without the freedom to respond appropriately, and they frequently become protection mechanisms.

The good news about pseudo-roles is that, the self (the ego) drops them when they are no longer necessary. A little like not needing a crutch after the leg has healed from an injury.

Relationships built on one (or both parties) pseudo role are doomed. The link may initially appear to be there, but they automatically and rapidly deteriorate or dissipate when people find new positions or new friends or a new partner.

More often than not, coaches unaware of this, challenge pseudo-roles directly as if they were integrated authentic roles. This is unhelpful as the owner of the pseudo-role will have significant skill in maintaining the charade. Indeed, for some, just attending a coaching session or counselling or as simple as a performance review or meeting with the boss can create an atmosphere of heightened tension – expanding personal space. It is not possible to reach a person through this space.

Think of a time when you have used a pseudo role. What was the situation? How long did the relationship last?

Mega roles

Mega roles

A mega role is an overdeveloped one that dominates and is often used when a more appropriate role is weak.

Often at the expense of other roles, mega roles are overdeveloped. Such roles dominate due to a lack of stimulation of other roles. And once dominant, can prevent other roles from becoming stimulated.

A frequently heard example of a mega role I hear from clients is “managing” my children.

The role of “manager” is well-developed, and we may use this when a more appropriate role, such as “parent” is not so well developed. We can become a “specialist” and only function effectively as a specialist.

A coach, for example, who knows only how to relate to people as a coach, may have poorly developed roles as a friend, or spouse – tending to coach a friend rather than just be a friend.

Think of a time when you have played a mega role or recall one that you have experienced.


Developing alternate behaviours

The first step, in developing appropriate behaviours in a relationship, is to recognize the roles of each party. Every role played is always in relation to a counter role. A “parent” role is often appropriately countered by a “child” role, “teacher”-“student”, “manager”-“staff”, “colleague”-“colleague”.

And, we need to consider how the role is being played: For example, a “Concerned Parent” could be countered by an “Obliging Child”… that is likely to work. However, a “Concerned Manager” countered by a “Resentful Staff” is likely to have some relationship issues.

It is often the “how” part of doing a particular role that people find the most difficulty in developing. The role itself may stay the same, but the way of playing that role, can change.

So first, we examine the role we are playing and how we are doing it. Is the role I am playing constructive? Is it fragmenting? Is it ambivalent?

Then we can examine the counter role being played by the other person in the relationship.

Thirdly, we can examine what we need to change to move the relationship forward. Do I change the role that I am playing? Do I change how I am doing that role? Do I change both?

Consider the following roles and counter roles and what could change to improve the relationship:

Fearful Leader Resentful Staff
Procrastinating Manager Stressed out Team member
Patronizing colleague Boastful friend
Loving Disciplinarian Guilty Liar
Gentle Clarifier Impatient Interrupter
Pushy Salesperson Doubtful Prospect
Demanding Boss Fearful Child


From this table you can see that some roles we play are constructive, both the role and the “how” are positive (e.g. Gentle Clarifier). Others are fragmenting, both the role and the “how” are negative (e.g. Guilty Liar). And some are ambivalent, either the role or the “how” are negative (e.g. Patronizing -ve Colleague +ve).

It is often the ambivalent roles that destroy relationships. Are there any positive roles that you regularly play in a negative way?

Once we clarify perceptions (and remember that your perception is your reality just as their perception is their reality!), the roles and counter roles can be unravelled and resolved.

Each and every day, we play a number of roles. If we want our relationships to develop, then it is in our interests to develop the appropriate (and constructive) roles that enable those relationships to grow.

Can we help you and your team develop better relationships and stronger, more productive roles? Talk to us about our Team Leadership workshops.

Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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