I started my career as a psychotherapist. The problem was, I was in my early twenties and looked about 12. 

I not only looked young, but I was young. While I had training and insight, I lacked lived experience. 

And that meant I was constantly fielding challenging questions like:

“How would you know about this problem?”

“Have you ever had children?”

“How long have you been doing this?”

Looking back, in today’s lingo, I see that I was afraid to “stand in my power.” My age and lack of experience dwarfed (in my mind) my expert power and my positional power.

As it turns out, standing in the power of one’s role is a challenge for many. Even for more seasoned professionals—ones that actually look their age.

For instance, many leaders I have coached don’t feel comfortable asserting their positional power.

Fellow coaches and consultants have admitted that they feel awkward asserting their power of expertise.

Both prefer seeing themselves as partners, using personal power rather than positional or expert power. They rely on their personal characteristics to influence and engage others. They try to lead by example. They use their relational and social skills to create cooperative and collaborative relationships.

And the current Zeitgeist supports them in this. The most popular leadership books and approaches right now advocate for leading with trust, empathy, and authenticity. Companies are focusing on culture and employee well-being. There is a clarion call for humanizing leadership and humanizing the workplace.

That’s a good thing. A very good thing. 

But it’s not enough. In fact, it’s precisely only 50% of the leadership equation.

Over the last 30 years or so, two things are happening in parallel: the leadership development industry has been focusing on improving the personal development of the leader—building a better, more emotionally intelligent, and self-aware leader—and there’s been a steep rise in leadership misconduct and corporate corruption. 

The list of CEOs ousted because of fraud, sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, and creating toxic cultures is huge and growing. Each year we’re witnessing organizational scandals of massive proportions—Catholic Church, Volkswagen, Wells Fargo Bank, Theranos, and most recently FTX.

Clearly, the focus on personal development isn’t enough. 

Building better humans for the role of leadership is necessary but not sufficient. What’s needed is the other half of the equation: training those humans how to responsibly occupy a role of authority and power. 

Occupying a role requires different things than just being self-aware, emotionally intelligent, empathic, and authentic. In fact, there are critical moments when fulfilling your role responsibly diverges from what you want to do, from what your feelings tell you to do, and from what others want you to do.

Roles have functions, tasks, responsibilities, boundaries, and limits that are critical for the ethical execution of that role. As a manager, teacher, parent, coach, or consultant, your first duty is to your role, not to personal feelings, your team, or your colleagues.

This is a critical point, one that involves the non-sexy side of leadership: ethics, responsibility, conflict of interest, and accountability.

What does it mean to occupy a role? And why is it important? 

Roles tell us what to do and what not to do. 

It sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s not always clear what we’re meant to do, nor what we’re meant to achieve. Every role has competing functions, tasks, and conflicts of interest. For instance, 

  • I want to empower my team to make decisions, but at the same time, not all decisions are up to debate, and I have to be the decider.
  • As a teacher, I have to help my students learn, and at the same time discipline them, or fail them, which may result in a setback in their learning.
  • One of my team members is rude and aggressive towards others, but he gets the job done and brings in the revenue that helps me make my targets, which is good for my prospects in the company. 

Focusing on our role (what’s my job, and what does it require me to do?), is a way to clear the fog, to refocus on the outcome for which we’re responsible.

Roles have boundaries.

A boundary distinguishes me in the role from you outside of it. Again, it sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s easy to blur that boundary:

  • I am afraid to give feedback because my direct report gets defensive. I worry about the backlash and conflict, and now I’m allowing their reactions, or my fear of their reactions to guide my behavior. 
  • I am a manager and when I have a bad day, I can vent, complain, and unload my personal problems onto my team. But that’s confusing and unprofessional and takes advantage of the rank difference in an inappropriate way. 

Roles help people succeed by defining expectations and outcomes, If you don’t know what your role is, you don’t know what tasks you’re meant to accomplish. And that means you don’t know how to succeed at what you’re doing.

Having role clarity means clearly identifying who does what, so each person is authorized to do their job. People aren’t stepping on each others’ toes. They have a clear sense of what they’re meant to achieve, which imparts a personal sense of accomplishment and allows them to be 

Roles help us serve the greater good. 

Roles belong to a system. When you occupy a role, you are in the service of a larger system. That helps define the difference between your personal needs and those of the organization.

But personal needs are ever present and guide our behaviors, even when we aren’t aware of it: 

  • I avoid speaking up because I feel insecure or am afraid to be shot down, even though my knowledge and insight will help the project.
  • I assign projects to my close colleagues because it’s easier for me to work with people I already know and like.
  • I won’t share resources or information with my colleague because he’s always competing with me and didn’t share resources with me when I needed them. 

This is what leads to the tragedy of the commons: When I prioritize my self-interest, I jeopardize the good of the system I live in. It’s not just bad for others, but it’s also bad for me.

Truly great leadership is a 50/50 endeavor. We need to be developing great humans. But we also need more clarity and insight into the requirements of the role those great humans are occupying.