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by David Pendleton ( Edgecumbe Consulting – Founder & Associate )

The subject of leadership has spawned so many different views that it is hard for most leaders to know where to turn for clear, practical guidance on the subject.

Ideas seem to come and go, reflecting the dominant themes in wider society. The prevailing ideas in the early twentieth century were reflected in leadership and management models that were fiercely hierarchical. As the next hundred years unfolded, better educated and emancipated people demanded greater say in all matters and this was reflected in more democratised models of leadership that demanded vision and involvement. It is interesting, for example, that the word ‘vision’, which we now hold as fundamental to leadership, hardly appeared in the leadership literature until the mid-twentieth century. In the early twenty-first century, an emerging theme is distributed leadership, now dubbed ‘leadership in the plural’.

Our aim in creating the Primary Colours Approach to leadership was to develop a simple, coherent and memorable guide for busy leaders and professionals which was evidence based and relevant to twenty-first century workforces. We wanted it to be intellectually sound and intensely practical.

Our first aim was to define the territory of leadership in terms of the tasks leaders have to perform. We created the Primary Colours Model to achieve this, arguing that the three primary domains of leadership were the Strategic domain, the Operational domain and the Interpersonal domain and that by combining leadership in these three areas, complete leadership was the result. By representing these domains as a Venn diagram, we identified seven tasks that leaders needed to achieve themselves or ensure were achieved.

Thus, we defined the tasks of Setting Strategic Direction, Creating Alignment, Building and Sustaining Relationships, Team Working, Planning and Organising and Delivering Results. At the centre of the Venn diagram there was the task of Leading which involved balancing and coordinating the deployment of the other leadership tasks much as a conductor functions with an orchestra.

However, as business psychologists, we had noted through our assessments that it seemed to be hard for any leader to be equally competent in all three domains and we searched for possible explanations as to why this may be. We found research studies showing that personality might provide some clues. Openness is an aspect of personality that often manifests itself as curiosity and openness helps in the strategic domain. Yet the same characteristic can hinder operationally and manifest itself as distractibility, especially when combined with low conscientiousness. Open people who are low on conscientiousness but intellectually bright tend to be better suited to strategic thought than operational focus.

In the search for relevant evidence to support our approach, we reviewed the available research on both leadership and its impact on team and organisation performance (see Pendleton and Furnham 2012). Lately, two new studies strengthen the evidence base for our approach.

In a study published in the January 2016 HBR, Sydney Finkelstein reported independent evidence which is consistent with the Primary Colours Model. His study was of more than 200 so-called Super-bosses. These are the business leaders who employ and develop the next generation of CEOs in their industrial and commercial sectors. A widely-known example of a super-boss was Jack Welch who, in the 1990s at GE in the USA, developed some 32 managers who became CEOs themselves of S&P 500 companies with mixed success.

Finkelstein reports that the super-bosses he studied are of one of three types:

  • Nurturers. These bosses function in many ways like mentors, coaches and teachers. They bring along and develop their protégés investing in their continuing development, taking pride in their successes. Finkelstein cites Mary Kay Ash as a prime example of such a super-boss. She started her cosmetics company from scratch and grew it into a multi-billion dollar organisation. She was famous for coining the term ‘praising people to success’.
  • Glorious Bastards. These bosses care about winning more than anything else. To this end, they develop the world’s best people and teams and they push inexorably to deliver results and defeat the competition. Finkelstein cites Larry Ellison as a prime example of such a super-boss. Ellison started a software company with two partners and $2,000, $1200 of which was his own, and grew it into Oracle, driving himself to become the fifth wealthiest person in the world.
  • Iconoclasts. These bosses usually operate in creative fields where their single-minded passion is inspirational. Yet their impact is in the strategic sphere where their understanding of the market drives their creativity and where they set new directions for their own organisations to follow and even their competitors. Finkelstein cites Ralph Lauren as a prime example of such a super-boss. Lauren started out making ties out of scrap material, founded his eponymous clothing company and grew it into a multi-billion-dollar empire.

Prescient readers will already see where I am going with this. Nurturer leaders focus on the interpersonal domain. The Glorious Bastards are obsessed with delivering results in the operational domain and the Iconoclasts contribute most in the strategic domain. This independent study, aimed at a specific target within the generic theme of leadership, provides supportive evidence of our three domains in the Primary Colours Model: our first leadership proposition.

Our second proposition is that it is hard for any individual to be strong in all aspects of leadership. Recent empirical support for this proposition emerged in the December 2015 Harvard Business Review (HBR). A study was reported by PwC of 700 business leaders whose capabilities were rated by colleagues. Their study demonstrated that only 16% of the leaders were rated as highly effective in either creating strategy or in executing it. Execution, in our model, is essentially operational. Significantly, only 8% were said to be highly effective in both. This strongly supports our own observation from our assessments of business leaders. Sadly, fully 35% in the PwC study were judged to be neutral or worse in both creating strategy and executing it and 63% were neutral or worse in one area or the other. Highly effective leaders seem to be a subset of a subset of those in leadership positions.

The PwC study goes on to suggest ways in which leaders can improve their capabilities to narrow the gap between strategy and execution. Their implication is that those who are good in either aspect can, in time, become more capable in the other which is a conventional approach to learning and development. But if we are right, that the attributes that facilitate strategic capability can hinder operational, then a better solution would be to put together leadership teams made up of leaders with complementary capabilities, instantly doubling the highly effective group from 8% (very effective in BOTH strategy and execution) to 16% (very effective in EITHER strategy OR execution) if they can be helped to work effectively together. This is the notion of complementary differences among colleagues.

These two recent papers strengthen our assertion that the Primary Colours Approach to leadership is a simple, coherent approach with a current evidence base.


David Pendleton and Adrian Furnham (2012) Leadership: all you need to know. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Sydney Finkelstein (2016) Secrets of the super-bosses. Harvard Business Review Jan-Feb 2016.

Paul Leinwand, Cesare Mainardi and Art Kleiner (2015) Only 8% of leaders are good at both strategy and execution. Harvard Business Review December 2015