The 4 Types of Leaders in Thriving Organisations

Oct 17, 2019 1 Min Read

There are several types of leaders, not just one. I am surprised how often people think of captains or generals only, when they describe leadership and how often the behaviour they describe is that of an extrovert, forgetting that introverts can also be effective leaders. This is because sometimes boards may not realise there are four types of leaders needed for an organisation to thrive: ‘captains’, ‘navigators’, ‘engineers’ and ‘builders’.

1. Captains

Just as a ship must have a captain who exercises the ultimate authority over the crew and whose role is to call them to action, so must a business. The defining role of the ship’s captain is to wield power; to explain the mission and timetable for action; to allocate responsibilities accordingly; to inspire the crew; to lay down the code of conduct and to enforce it. The captain’s role is also to become the focus of energy in a crisis around whom the crew can rally to get things done quickly.

It is the captain’s responsibility to save the crew from disaster and that is why the captain is the last person to leave a sinking ship. However, if we think only of captains, we miss many other crucial roles contributing to success.

Part of our difficulty with appreciating the role that effective executive leadership can play in learning is that all of us are used to the ‘captain of the ship’ image of traditional hierarchical leaders. However, when executives act as teachers, stewards, and designers, they fill roles that are much more subtle, contextual, and long term than the traditional model of the power wielding hierarchical leader.

Peter Senge in Rethinking Leadership in the Learning Organisation

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2. Navigators

Every captain needs a navigator. Once the captain has set the destination and the timetable, it is the responsibility of the navigator to chart the best route, accounting for wind, weather forecasts, tides, currents and safe channels; reconciling the need for speed with economy and safety.

To navigate is to chart a course for getting from where you are to where you want to go. Getting there is the process of planning, recording, and controlling the course and [your] progress to [your] destination… How you handle your sails, trim your ship… determines the speed and efficiency of how you sail… optimising the response of your vessel and crew to the changing conditions of wind, water, tides and currents, and the needs of the crew and condition of the vessel itself.

Wohl A. and Wohl L. in Navigating Organisations Through the 21st Century: A Metaphor for Leadership

In business, ‘navigators’ are more likely to be in staff functions than the line. Their responsibility is to develop key assumptions of the plan; to ask “what if?” questions; examine scenarios; and develop appropriate contingencies.

Navigators chart the best route

To do this well, they must look outside the business; understand megatrends and how they could affect the organisation; establish effective early warning signals; and advise their ‘captains’ when conditions have changed.

In essence, they do what navigators do on ships, when they identify a threatening storm and implement course corrections to avoid it, while still staying on track to reach the destined port.

3. Engineers

Both ‘captains’ and ‘navigators’, however, must rely on ‘engineers’ in the engine room to keep the ship moving – what Peter Senge calls ‘line leaders’:

However, engaging local line leaders may be difficult. As pragmatists, they often find ideas like systems thinking, mental models, and dialogue intangible and ‘hard to get their hands around’.

Simon’s view is typical of many line leaders at the outset: he was skeptical, but he recognised that he had problems that he could not solve. He also had a trusted colleague who was willing to engage with him.

Again, and again, we have found that healthy, open-minded skeptics can become the most effective leaders and, eventually, champions of this work. They keep the horse in front of the cart by focusing first and foremost on business results.

Such people invariably have more staying power than the ‘fans’ who get excited about new ideas but whose excitement wanes once the newness wears off.

Senge’s points about Simon’s skepticism and the excitement of ‘fans’ about new ideas are important caveats. Boards, top management teams, ‘captains’ and ‘navigators’ are persuaded by ‘big picture’ ideas before they are applied. Their mental model is ‘believe, understand, do’, which is why they listen to consultants and experts and why they move on to the next bright idea or fad so easily.

Read this: As A Leader, How Do You Think ‘Big Picture’?

Line managers and ‘engineers’, on the other hand, are more likely to be ‘little picture’ pragmatists interested in how the idea works in practice. Their mental model is the reverse: “do, understand, believe”. This explains why they have staying power once they are convinced. ‘Captains’ and ‘navigators’ must remember this when communicating new ideas to ‘engineers’, if they are to avoid the weary reaction of “Yet another idea from head office; this too will surely pass, like all the other flavour of the month initiatives.”

4. Builders

For a ship to do exactly what the navigator has charted; the captain has ordered his crew to do; the engineer has the engine room running ‘full steam ahead’ to deliver, there needs to be one more type of leader – the ‘builder’.

If a ship is badly built, and if the processes linking all the different parts of the ship to each other are missing, then the ship will not respond in the way the captain, navigator and engineer expect, putting the mission and crew at risk.

Read also: Here’s How Google Knows in Less Than 5 Minutes if Someone Is a Great Leader

So, we must never forget the ship-builder. The reason the Titanic was such a disaster was primarily because of flawed design. In business, ‘builders’ are the planners, enterprise risk managers and auditors whose job is to ensure there are appropriate processes, procedures and service level agreements between departments, supported and reinforced by agreed codes of conduct and compliance mechanisms, creating the process infrastructure for the business model to achieve its agreed mission and vision.

With little or no infrastructure to support ongoing learning, one might ask: Why should successful new practices spread in organisations? Who studies these innovations to document why they worked? Where are the learning processes that will enable others to follow in the footsteps of successful innovators? Who is responsible for creating these learning processes?

There can be little doubt of the long-term business impact of executive leadership in developing learning infrastructure. When the Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s central group planning leaders became convinced that ‘scenario thinking’ was a vital survival skill in turbulent, unpredictable world oil markets, they didn’t initiate a set of scenario-planning courses for Shell’s management. Instead, they redesigned the planning infrastructure so that management teams regularly were asked not just for their budget and their ‘plan’, but for several plans describing how they would manage under multiple possible futures. ‘Planning as learning’ has gradually become a way of life within Shell.

Peter Senge in Rethinking Leadership in the Learning Organisation

Boards with effective succession plans and talent management programmes recognise there is more than one way of leading. They understand the temperamental and responsibility differences between ‘captain’, ‘navigator’, ‘engineer’ and ‘builder’. They know their organisations need all four to be successful; and develop and appoint their talent accordingly.

Datuk John Zinkin is managing director of Zinkin Ettinger Sdn. Bhd. and author of Better Governance Across the Board. Get in touch with him at

This article first appeared on Focus Malaysia

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