The 4 Essential Leadership Roles of Every Career Journey

The 4 Leadership Roles a Successful Professional Must Play

Successful Professionals Understand These Roles & When to Play Each One

Every role we play as humans has certain responsibilities and skills that come with it. And as we all know, each of us plays multiple roles.

In our personal lives, this usually feels natural. We may play the roles of both parent and child, sibling, friend, and more. We lean on what we’ve seen from our upbringing and what we learn from our culture, peers, and partners. Generally, we know which role to play in which situations.

But what about our professional lives? Very often, we have a professional qualification or specific area of expertise — engineer, accountant, project manager, doctor, teacher, etc. As our careers progress, we often add or change titles — Specialist, Manager, Leader, Director, Vice President, etc. We have a job description and things to be achieved in the role.

Our work with leaders across the globe for over half a century has led us to a seemingly simple, but crucial insight: We must play multiple leadership roles in our professional lives, irrespective of our qualifications or industry.

And perhaps the roles most crucial for our long-term success aren’t those on job descriptions, but those needed to make leadership happen in our organizations.

The key comes in our ability to play each role and to choose the right role for the right situation.

The 4 Leadership Roles a Successful Professional Must Play

There are 4 leadership roles that every professional must navigate and draw upon to be successful:

  • Player
  • Manager
  • Coach
  • Leader

Infographic: The 4 Essential Roles of Every Career Journey


Players are individual contributors who are vital to achieving the goals of an organization. They are the “doers” who create value by making the product or providing the service.

Regardless of our formal role, all of us keep the Player in the mix of roles we need to play to contribute to our organizations. Any time we’re focused on our own performance and getting things done ourselves, we’re in the Player role. Even in the C-suite, there are times where it’s important to “just do it.”


When you manage people or projects, you need to learn to step back from doing all of the work yourself. A Manager is the one responsible for organizing the work, driving efficiency, holding people accountable, and helping get problems solved.

Like the Player, the Manager is focused on performance, but they need to get things done through others. This is all about the mindset shift that we like to call going “from Me to We.” And it’s one of the hardest ones a professional has to make throughout their leadership career.


While we all know what an individual contributor is, and many of us carry a title with the word Manager, the Coach role is just as critical when we want to enable leadership across individuals and teams. While the Player and Manager roles are focused on performance, the Coach is focused on development.

The Coach role is not about solving the problems, it’s about helping people get out of their own way so they can become better problem solvers. Coaches are trying to bring the best out in people, trying to get people to activate their strengths. They listen, ask powerful questions, and help grow capabilities over time.


Management is about doing things right, but leadership is about doing the right thing. Regardless of job title, when you act in the Leader role, you see the big picture and connect the dots — for yourself and others. Like the Coach, the Leader is about development overtime. But they’re not just developing individual capabilities, they’re looking at the whole system.

They’re influencing others and taking actions to develop the collective capacity for direction, alignment, and commitment (DAC). At CCL, we know that when there’s shared DAC, leadership is happening.

“CCL’s program helped me assess my role and contribution as a player, manager, coach, and leader. I feel more equipped to serve my team and organization in all 4 of those capacities and look forward to continual personal growth as I continue to reach my leadership potential.”

— Nicole Caliri, Manager – Talent & Organizational Development
Serco Inc.
Maximizing Your Leadership Potential Participant

When Is Each Leadership Role Typically Played? It Varies by Leader Level & Career Stage

At every stage of your career, you’ll be required to play each of these leadership roles, but what we tend to see is that the ideal ratio changes as you move through different levels of leadership. As we’ve worked with leaders around the globe, we’ve found that there are some predictable shifts in the amount of time you’ll need to spend in each role in order to be most successful.

While the ideal ratio of time spent in each leadership role varies a little from one industry to another, and from more matrixed organizations to more traditional ones, what we tend to see looks like this:

Leadership Roles: Pie Charts, Time Split by Leader Level

  • Individual contributors and professional staff need to coach, manage, and lead occasionally, as in order to get things done, they must be able to influence others without formal authority. They are typically in the leadership role of player over 3/4 of the time.
  • Those who are leading people and projects will still spend nearly half of their time in the role of player, but also a significant amount of time as manager. They will need to be a coach to, and leader of, other people in about equal parts in order to get their work done.
  • Those who are leading other leaders will spend the most time in the roles of leader and coach, with less of their time spent managing others, or doing the work themselves.
  • Those who are in charge of the entire organization, business, or function typically spend as much as half their time in the role of leader and 1/3 of their time in the role of coach.

Pause for a moment to consider your current professional responsibilities.

  • How do you currently divide your time between these 4 leadership roles?
  • How comfortable and capable do you feel in each leadership role?
  • What leadership roles might you need to play more (or less) frequently to be even more successful in your career?

Shifting Into a New Leadership Role

Our work with leaders at all levels globally has also shown us that the hardest transition to make is from the role of individual contributor to the role of manager, leading people or projects.

The graph above is a great way to see why that jump into management tends to be so hard. Individual contributors are typically in the role of player about 90% of the time. When they’re asked to be responsible for the work of others, they must make a significant shift in their mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets in order to play the other roles far more often and more skillfully. Many early leaders fail to make that shift successfully.

New leaders need help succeeding because as many as 50% of new leaders are rated as ineffective in their roles, and 40% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months. This carries a huge cost for organizations.

But luckily, there are ways to support new managers of people and projects so they’re ready for their new leadership roles that can shift the odds in their favor.

For those who want to take on expanded responsibility, there are 6 crucial shifts that new leaders must make in order to be successful:

  1. Mindset: You’re leading others now, not just yourself.
  2. Relationships: You’ll want to shift from the role of “friend” to the leadership role of “boss.”
  3. Attitude: You’ll need to delegate the work and not try to do it all yourself anymore.
  4. Perspective: You’ll want to shift your view to be sure you’re seeing the bigger picture.
  5. Focus: You’ll want to shift your focus to what’s right for the organization, not just you.
  6. Skillset: You’ll want to shift your skills to manage your team effectively. In particular, there are 6 critical skills frontline leaders need to develop.

Learning new mindsets and skillsets are like any other pursuit. You wouldn’t want to teach yourself to skydive without expert instruction; it’s the same with leadership skills.

We can support you and your team as you move through your career journey to help you develop the competencies you need to succeed in any leadership role.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

As you and your team grow in each of the 4 leadership roles and strive to move your organization forward, we’re here to help. We’ve innovated several solutions to address the different challenges that new leaders in particular face. Explore our new manager courses and solutions now.

Sign Up for Newsletters

Don’t miss a single insight! Get our latest cutting-edge, research-based leadership content sent directly to your inbox.

December 15, 2020
Samir Mehta
About the Author(s)
Samir Mehta
Samir is CCL's Director of Digital Learning Products, ensuring that digital learning products and blended learning solutions are designed and delivered seamlessly for CCL’s clients worldwide. He also facilitates virtual learning experiences and serves as a leadership coach He has a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the University of Pune in India and an MBA from the Indian School of Business.
Karissa McKenna
Karissa is a Global Portfolio Lead at CCL, where she designs and facilitates leadership development solutions with a focus on high-tech, biotech, and research organizations where collaboration and innovation across boundaries and expertise are critical to success. She holds a BA in cultural anthropology from University of California San Diego and an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago.

Related Content

Please update your browser. requires a modern browser for an enhanced and secure user experience. Internet Explorer is no longer supported or recommended by Microsoft. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that you upgrade to Microsoft Edge or similar.