Reflections on Leadership

April 2, 2024
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The most effective teams are built upon three key people (and ideally teams are made up of odd numbers as they grow, so that there is always a casting vote), and that those original three should share traits that include an innovator, operator and leader.  

"Within any high-performing team there are three types of people: leaders, warriors and special talent. Leaders provide direction and guidance, though only one of them will provide overall leadership. The warriors do the hard grind. The special talents provide the spark, the creativity and the strategic response. All three groups understand the nature and demands of their role, and they also know how to fit into the wider group to maximise its effectiveness. Any imbalance can be fatal." - Alastair Campbell.

The innovator, operator and leader

In any high-performing team, you need:

  • The Innovator (or "special talent") - This person provides the creative spark, fresh ideas and strategic thinking to address challenges in novel ways. They are the source of ingenuity.
  • The Operator (or "warrior") - The operator does the hard grind, tirelessly executing to turn vision and strategy into reality through disciplined effort. They make things happen.
  • The Leader - Provide overall direction, guidance and motivation. They set the vision, make the tough decisions, and inspire the team to achieve ambitious goals together.

All three roles are essential and interdependent. The innovator dreams up the bold ideas, the operator makes them real, and the leader charts the course and steers the ship. There can be multiple leaders in a team, but only one at the helm providing overall direction. The key is getting the balance right - an overabundance of any one type leads to imbalance and dysfunction.

"Any imbalance can be fatal. Too many warriors and there are insufficient ideas. Too much special talent - a team of Ronaldo’s and Messi’s - and you end up with egotistical mayhem. Leadership requires skilled management of that balance." - Alastair Campbell.

Alastair Campbell's leader, warrior and special talent

In his book, "but what can I do" Alastair Campbell uses slightly different terminology to describe these three essential roles and these descriptions resonated with us:

  • The Leader - Provides overall leadership, direction and decision-making just like the captain of a ship. Sets the tone and culture.
  • The Warrior - The disciplined executors and determined fighters who relentlessly drive progress and refuse to accept defeat. They are the engine of the team.
  • The Special Talent - Those with unique abilities and creative brilliance who conjure up innovative strategies and solutions. The maverick geniuses.

The most successful teams and organisations get this combination right, with each type understanding their role and how they fit into the broader team to maximise effectiveness.

"The warriors respect the special talent, the special talent appreciates the warriors, and the leader values them both while steering the ship." - Alastair Campbell.

The three roles in companies: CEO, COO and CTO

In digitally mature companies, these three essential leadership types often map directly to the roles of CEO (Chief Executive Officer), COO (Chief Operating Officer), and CTO (Chief Technology Officer):

  • The CEO as the Leader - The CEO sets the overall vision and strategy for the company, makes the high-level decisions, and is ultimately responsible for its performance and results.
  • The COO as the Operator/Warrior - The COO is responsible for executing the vision and strategy. They oversee the company's day-to-day operations, ensuring that everything runs smoothly and efficiently. The COO is the disciplined operator who translates plans into reality.
  • The CTO as the Innovator/Special Talent - The CTO drives the company's technological innovation and development. They identify emerging technologies, determine how to leverage them for competitive advantage, and guide the technical direction of products and services. The CTO is the creative force behind the company's technical brilliance.

Of course, the specific titles and division of responsibilities will vary between organisations. But in general, the CEO-COO-CTO trio provides a balanced leadership team with a leader charting the course, an operator driving disciplined execution, and an innovator fuelling creative disruption.

The most successful companies recognise the importance of this leadership combination and ensure that the CEO, COO and CTO work together as a close-knit, complementary team. Each plays a distinct yet equally vital role in driving the company forward.

Putting it all together

Building a winning team is both an art and a science. It requires the identification of the right people for each role, ensuring they recognise the importance of all positions, and unifying them behind a common purpose and vision. The leader must set the culture, encourage ideas from everywhere, and keep the team focused on the ultimate objectives; but remember that teams need leaders as much as leaders need teams.

When you get that alchemy right - a respected leader charting a bold course, a band of determined warriors executing the mission, and creative talents inspiring and innovating - that's when teams become truly unstoppable forces. As Campbell asserts, it's a "Holy Trinity essential for any meaningful change…"

Master that combination, and you can take on the world. And if you need a bit of help along the way, you can always rely on Yopla for support - get in touch here!

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Co-Founder, Yopla
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