Redressing the balance between positional and personal leadership by Yvonne Thackray


A lot of my work in coaching is helping professionals reframe their understanding of the work they do in comparison to similar value work in the market place.

Making progress as a professional

Professionals have typically been trained well in their technical role. What I mean by technical here is that for most traditional careers, there is an agreed body of knowledge that forms the basis of what it means to be a professional. It becomes part of the learning framework for developing one’s technical skills –as part of an educational and/or training programme. For professionals who are working in innovative fields, such as the technology sector, they have intersected their skills with other markets to automate, advance, and even create new fields that supply a more diverse range of services to the market using technology like blockchain, AI and 3-D printing. And with the advent of open source it encouraged and enabled a forum for engaging in and building consensus of principles and best practices between the creators and users. This allows for a faster adoption rate, on a sound and growing body of knowledge that has been through peer reviews, and represents current industry standards.

What’s invaluable from this type of ‘technical training’ for all professionals is the resources invested in understanding what skills, knowledge and capabilities are required to move from starting out as a novice to becoming an expert. Dreyfus’s model of skill acquisition is a useful framework that identifies five developmental stages (novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert) to explore the outcomes of acquiring skills. Importantly, it’s a useful way for a professional to understand and objectively compare themselves with others of where they are, and what needs to be done to get to the next level.

Career progression, particularly for those who are permanent employees, is also expected, and this normally involves moving from a purely technical role to taking on more strategic positions within an organisation. This often stretches them in their behavioural competences, and causes anxieties (of various degrees) of letting go of their technical ‘identity’. Without that technical ‘body of knowledge’ to confidently refer to they are now also being assessed on their ‘personal’ skills and abilities they bring to that role (aka personal leadership), typically labelled under very broad headings such as communication, management and leadership. It is challenging to develop a framework that is both inclusive and diverse, and most importantly relevant to how each professional develops and performs, because each professional’s behaviours will vary depending on how others engage with them. Every situation is unique and different. Different functions shape the behaviours that they are most required to perform, and this depends on how complex and high profile the project is, etc. Simply applying a one size fits all competency model quickly breaks down because it doesn’t take into account the huge variances in individual styles and behaviours.

Without a clear framework that’s available to quickly access, use as a guide to support their development and compare against, it makes it perplexing to measure one’s progress of personal leadership as a professional. I work with most of my clients in this area, supporting them as they become aware of their personal style, mapping out their cognitive and behavioural patterns that shape their approach to professionalism, and connecting to their roles with their associated responsibilities.

Differentiating between positional and personal leadership

Professionals, who have (or have had) a more traditional positional title bestowed upon them – e.g. Manager, Vice President, Director – typically haven’t had the time to step back, consolidate, and appreciate how and what in particular has been their contribution to each of their projects before rushing into the next workstreams in the pipeline.

Positional leaders have specific performance targets that they have to reach in order to deliver the multiple projects they are part of – whether as a lead and/or team member – including:

  • Setting the strategic

  • Dealing with the complexities of each project, which typically requires gathering information from various sources.

  • Converting and communicating relevant information to others.

  • Enabling others to be more motivated and to be responsible for their own actions.

  • Making decisions with just-in-time information.

  • Deciding whether to delegate or do the work themselves.

  • Shifting between roles and maintaining their own sense of self throughout it all in a very specific organisational cultural environment.

We’re asking so much from every working professional!

On top of that, each and every one has to carefully manage and balance their individual personality and ‘personal’ needs that influence and impact on their potential and performance in their role. Every individual, and hence organisations in this day and age, can be held liable for inappropriately taking some form of action – direct or indirect – that can be perceived as a form of discrimination and can be taken to a work tribunal or equivalent.

The guidelines on finding the right balance between being professional and bringing our personal self to the work space, for each individual, is opaque. Additionally, how are all the different working relationships perceived? One informal social-communication indicator might be the amount of gossip surrounding an individual. The more formal route is through 360 feedbacks, annual reviews and retrospectives. This signposts the beginning of ‘formal’ interventions for evaluating how they develop their (personal) leadership and style. The challenge is finding the framework that’s tailored to the individual’s style that it’s supposed to enable.

This is why it’s a lot easier to talk about results. The conversation is specific as it focuses on the targets they have achieved, the impact they have on contributing to profitability/surplus, employee retention, optimising, streamlining, etc. Every professional I speak with is very good at speaking in those terms, but when I ask them how they went about making it happen and why they were specifically chosen to take on that position/role, they quickly become shy and minimise their own contributions that are not perceived as measurable outputs.

Awareness of a professional’s personal leadership pattern

The career trajectories of every professional, after the initial stages of structured learning and engagement, become both more complex and unstructured. There’s no manual of how to make something work, and this requires each individual to take the initiative to clarify if they are realising their potential relative to their position, whether as a leader, manager, or employee. This becomes more pressing, and of strategic value, when they know they are to be promoted. Being able to assess their potential to expand their capacity beyond their performance, providing that the rewards are met by the organisation the meritocratic way, and achieving it consistently is another matter. But when it does happen, it has typically helped individuals working in typically volatile and chaotic times to continually find new positions within a company. Furthermore, they have been selected because their strengths match with other strategic projects that are important in achieving the organisation’s mission and vision. 

What is absolutely clear whenever I speak with such individuals is that they have fewer words to describe the strength of their personal leadership because it’s typically something that isn’t asked about and even less often deliberately practised. However, this is often why they have been tasked to lead a particularly tough project. Responses I’m accustomed to hearing when I ask why they have been given that role include: ‘No one else wants to do it. I don’t know. There’s no position for this role but the project needs to get done, and they picked me. I had to take the role because I don’t want to be found out for what I haven’t accomplished in my current role. I just get on and do it. I’m cheap.’

Very few have taken the time out to step back and look at how they’ve applied their personal leadership to the project. For example, how:

  • Their vision has played a part in how they’ve designed the programme and how it coincides with the needs of the organisation.

  • They’ve had the skills to speak with a number of stakeholders, negotiating and managing conflicts, and seeing other professionals as individuals, with their own personal needs and reality.

  • Their values and principles have remained consistent even with the changing organisational culture.

Answering the ‘how’ helps to get to the ‘why’ of the decisions made through their thought process and the actions they decided on to get to the result they set out to achieve. Every person has their own unique cognitive process for taking in and deciding how best to move forward; every person has their own blind spots, which they may be aware of, or not.

They’ve shown that they know how to bring themselves to their roles and have a fairly good balance of maintaining a healthy level of control of what’s in their purview and what’s not. Recognising how they’ve managed to achieve this, typically, is more understandable in hindsight, yet it’s their character in each of those moments that has helped them continue going forward, even when it’s been a struggle. Someone in a senior position recognises those traits and characteristics, and in their own way finds ways to support them in their career trajectory within the organisation. They recognise their potential relative to their performance, and this exceeds their experiences. In the same way, a professional need to understand their own potential relative to their performance and talk about it as part of their experiences in both a confident and humble manner. 

Case Study: A senior executive working in the manufacturing industry for over thirty years and for two leading organisations in Europe and Asia

This senior executive has worked non-stop understanding all the various aspects of what makes the industry tick: starting as a graduate trainee all the way through to management and leadership roles. New positions were opened without any title but with a remit to complete the strategic goals that often required them to work and bring alignment across multiple functions set by the organisation. On top of that they were also minimally resourced, and relied on their ability to communicate and find the middle ground with each of the representatives to enable the project to be completed. These were complex change projects that looked to close the gaps that were impacting on the organisation’s competitiveness in an already competitive field. Once they had completed the project, they were immediately sent to work on a similar project that again focused on closing the gap within another part of the organisation. 

At one of our sessions, after I had passed their implicit testing to see whether I was someone who could provide the space they needed to share what was pressing on their mind about their role, they began disclosing more about the range of projects they had been working on. When asked why they were selected to their current position from their previous roles, they listed the commentary shared earlier. At this time, I would look directly at them, searched into their eyes, and with a slightly mischievous expression, I’d say, ‘I’m sure it’s more than that.’ This can be a bit of a nervous moment because it’s that, ‘Stop kidding me’ moment. ‘What else is there really to share about what I’ve done that can even be considered special? Isn’t this what everyone does?’ By the end of such a statement, if I can hear them being curious with their own question (a sudden inflection, a raised tone, a bemused look), I ask them to explain or simply highlight how they went about making it happen with all the different stakeholders on the project. As they repeat how they worked with each project, they begin seeing their own patterns of how they made it happen, and begin to share more of their own personal growth and development through the process.

In this particular case, their core principle was really listening to what their stakeholders’ issues were going to be and continuing going around negotiating and finding the middle ground to make it a win-win-win situation. The extra ‘win’ is there because they also take a holistic view of what’ll motivate the individual as well as the professional. For coaches, some might even call what they were doing team coaching! After they begin talking about what they’ve done they become curious and ask how they compare to other similar professionals. At this point, I’d share and reframe what they’ve shared with how it might be perceived, compared and valued in the market. 

Typically, I see a shocked expression because it’s been quite a long time since they’ve taken stock of all that they’ve done. Like all CVs they list all the positional responsibilities and outcomes but it’s only part of the story; it’s realising how much their personal leadership has helped them in their role, and seeing the bigger picture of their worth and value within the organisation. In a sense, it helped them to realise and rebalance their control within their role and be more aware of how they are behaving. 

Redressing the balance

Finding ways to address all the learning that takes place as we work means that we have to be comfortable to confidently talk about the positional and personal roles we hold. Sometimes our identity becomes all consumed by what position we’ve held because it’s simpler to talk about the results and responsibility of what that entails. It validates our expertise. However, only focusing on the position and its status can undermine the characteristics of a person that intrinsically accompany how they perform their role. Finding meaning, which aligns their potential and performance with the role, is how personal leadership elevates the qualities espoused (competences desired) in those positional roles. Not the other way round. This is what’s often described as ‘authentic’. When that quality of being ‘real’ or ‘true’ to themselves (derived from their personal knowledge base) connects to their roles (technical knowledge bases) more often than not, an equilibrium of healthy tensions has been reached and the balance redressed, for now.

My patterns of practice

In a similar way to how I ask my clients to share their patterns of practice, let me finish by sharing what I’ve learnt from writing this piece. By continuing to clarify and understand the space that I work best in, it has helped me to better understand the range of offerings I provide. My top learning points so far:

  • Confirmation and greater clarity that clients I continue to work best with are those professionals who’ve begun to explore their own personal leadership (self-development). They are not anxious of their professional role; this is different from being frustrated, but under the surface they are curious about how they got to where they are.

  • Being more conscious of those non-verbal behaviours that lead my choice of behaviour in that moment.

  • Becoming more aware of the implicit tests given by clients as a way to measure the level of trust within a coaching relationship.

  • Managing my boundaries of contributions (by not leaning into their agenda): providing a learning space for a client at the appropriate moments, and recognising when the client has gone as far as they can/want.

  • Being patient to hear how sustainably the learnings play out in the reality of their everyday situations.

  • Continuing to find and play with words that best describe the work I am doing.

To connect with Yvonne Thackray


Dreyfus, Stuart E. (2004) The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition
Lim, Siong Guan and Joanne Lim (2014), The Leader, the Teacher & You: Leadership Through the Third Generation