Duty over comfort: It’s time HRDs developed role awareness

If executives are pursuing their own leadership style rather than the persona their role requires, it's time for HRDs to step in, says Julia Diamond and Lisa Zigarmi:

Article main image
Jul 20, 2023

Imagine, if you will, Wei – a vice president of finance in the company she works for.

Her goal is to be the CFO within the next five years.

She has a good reason to think this can be achieved. She’s a high performer and is highly respected.

But she is also a thoughtful and reserved person. Wei tends not to speak that much in staff meetings, even though her expertise could be valuable.

So, what does Wei need to do?

Does she need to continue to be herself – that’s what HR professionals are often told is the right way for be to be – or should she adopt another persona – something that’s often described as being unfaithful and unauthentic?

Let’s look at what her boss, the current CFO thinks. His one piece of advice [let’s call it constructive criticism], to Wei is that she needs to weigh in more during meetings.

To this suggestion though, Wei resists. “He’s asking me to change my style. “It feels inauthentic to be so vocal about my opinions unless they are critical. I prefer to let my performance speak for itself.”

Where coaching is going wrong

It’s clear from this story that Wei is someone who favors her preferred, personally safe, way of behaving. She prefers her own way of behaving over the duties of the role, which necessitate that she contributes her thought leadership proactively to help the team make better decisions.

The problem is that Wei is like many leaders we coach and fall prey to this error.

These leaders want to stay faithful to their personal style; their comfortable way of engaging with others, and what feels expedient, though not necessarily appropriate for the role.

In other words, they prioritize self over role.

Prioritizing self doesn’t work

Another client we coach – let’s call him Sol – prioritizes self at the other end of the extreme.

Sol gives free rein to his emotions, and explains his fiery behavior by saying that he’s a passionate, results-driven CEO with high expectations. Sol often yells at people and publicly criticizes poor performance; he justifies it as being authentic.

Unfortunately, he too is not thinking about his role, which requires soliciting the best from his employees, creating forums for dialogue, and making informed, strategic decisions. Squawking because he’s frustrated or disappointed does little to further the CEO role. In fact, more often than not, it scares people and inhibits them from sharing valuable information or giving their discretionary energy to the organization.

The need to move away from self-focused leadership

In both examples, we can understand these natural human tendencies for personal style and comfortable ways of engaging.

Our problem is that the current leadership development industry encourages leaders to act as individuals, in terms of their style, strengths, and traits, yet it neglects to complement this individual awareness with an equally thorough understanding and endorsement of the duties, leadership imperatives and inconveniences of a role with positional power.

In fact we believe there are very negative consequences to a one-sided emphasis on self-focused leadership:

  • Organizational values are often undermined, when individual leadership styles are incongruent or ill-calibrated with the organization’s culture. This results in employee confusion, disengagement, and exhaustion, costing organizations billions of dollars.
  • Workplace behavioral standards slip when a leader’s so-called authentic behavior is experienced as abusive or toxic. As John Amaechi notes, “Culture is defined by the worst behavior that is tolerated.”
  • Leaders make unintended, and often negative impacts when they fail to adjust their behavior to meet situational demands.

We believe that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of cherishing the individual above and beyond the requirements of the role of leader.

Self-awareness needs to be balanced by an equal attention on role-awareness: the duties, expectations, and social obligations that come with a role of power.

We define role awareness as understanding a role in a given context, knowing the behavioral expectations placed upon that role, and managing the impact it has on others in order to align with the role and its expectations.

This is not as easy as it sounds. 

  • The role one plays in a given context can, and often does, conflict with how someone sees themself, and how they prefer to be, as we saw with Wei and Sol.
  • The behavioral expectations placed upon that role can be conflicting. As leaders, your job is indeed to encourage dissenting opinions. But it is also a leaders’ job to end the debate and make the decision. As a leader, there is a need to coach and develop a team but also the need to hold people accountable for when they fail to deliver. Role awareness means being able to discern what the competing functions of the role are, and when and where each function takes priority.
  • Managing impact on others requires placing the needs of the role ahead of individual needs, which may feel uncomfortable, inauthentic, and challenging. For instance, we’ve seen leaders mismanage this competency when they:
  • Delay giving constructive feedback out of conflict avoidance, even as it jeopardizes their team’s morale and productivity.
  • Avoid speaking out of insecurity, even though their knowledge and insight is crucial to the success of the project.
  • Assign projects to team members who are easier to work with, rather than consider the developmental needs of their people or the needs of the project.
  • Withhold resources or information from colleagues to advance their own or team’s agenda.

Like building self-awareness, there are things leaders can do to better manage their role, understand their impact, and behave in accordance with the demands of the context.

Leaders can build role awareness by engaging in these key actions:

Get clear on the ‘noble goal of the role’

For many, a role is defined by a job description, a list of duties and tasks that are meant to be fulfilled. But beyond the daily tasks, to-do lists, and fires to put out, there is also a “noble goal of the role.” The noble goal is the essential meaning of the role; the collective benefits fulfilled by the role. For instance, the noble goal of a doctor is to heal. The teacher’s noble goal is to enable learning. The CEO’s noble goal is to advance the company’s mission while serving the interests of employees, shareholders, and customers.

Knowing the role, and understanding the behavioral expectations of that role begins by discovering its higher purpose. For instance, delaying giving difficult but constructive feedback is out of step with the noble goal of the HR manager’s role which is to develop their people.

Broaden your range of leadership behaviors

Leaders need a variety of leadership styles to properly address the situational demands and dynamic challenges they face. Yet many leaders are loyal to their preferred leadership style even though it doesn’t match the varied contexts in which they lead. Broadening their range of leadership behaviors is a sacrifice a leader must be prepared to make, because some of the actions required to fulfill their duties will feel counterintuitive.

Learn to depersonalize

Stepping into a role of power is not just a gain, but a loss; a loss of individual identity. Leaders are not seen as individuals. They become the target for projections, attacks, flattery, and requests. For leaders who find this uncomfortable, they may try to be more authentic as a way to avoid this. Yet for someone in a role of power, it’s almost impossible for others, those dependent on them for their success and livelihood, to see them as a unique individual. Growing role awareness means understanding that in the eyes of others, the leader is a symbol of the organization and of authority more generally. To properly serve their role, the leader has to depersonalize other’s responses to them and relinquish their need to be seen as an individual by those they lead.

Ritualize the transition into a role

Some role transitions in life are obvious: becoming a parent, getting married, landing a job. But often it’s more subtle, and the change of status or rank is surprisingly easy to miss. That’s why stepping into a role should involve a rite of passage; a formal time for reflection. For instance, going from a director level to a VP role should involve time to reflect on questions, such as: ‘What is expected of me in this role, different from my previous role?’ or ‘How will my impact on others and on the organization change?’ Or ‘What comfortable behaviors might I have to let go of, and which behaviors might I have to adopt that feel uncomfortable or inauthentic?

Build a personal board of directors

Almost all companies have boards of directors to provide oversight, advocacy and assistance with decision making. Leaders need this too, in order to make sure they are prioritizing the organization’s interests and not their own.


It’s human to prefer comfort over discomfort; or to seek ease over inconvenience.

However, when we’re in positions of influence and power; we must – as leaders – do better.

Leaders need to balance self-awareness with role-awareness.

When leaders take the time to clarify the noble goal of their new roles, develop a variety of leadership styles to meet varied conditions, learn to depersonalize others reactions, ritualize their transitions, and build a diverse support team, they can calibrate personal preference and proficiency with collective responsibility and effort.