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Book Summary: The Nine Types of Leader by James Ashton

The Nine Types of Leader (2021) reveals the strengths, assets, and pitfalls of different leadership styles and personalities. Using case studies, it explores how different types of leaders operate, and which business landscapes they’re best suited to, so that they and their companies can thrive.

Book Summary: The Nine Types of Leader by James Ashton

Content Summary

Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Discover the inner workings of different leadership styles, so you can play to your strengths.
Alpha leaders are charismatic, dedicated monarchs.
Fixer leaders are the tough superheroes you need in a crisis.
Seller leaders are adept communicators who understand customers.
Founder leaders are driven visionaries who thrive on a challenge.
Scion leaders continue family legacies.
Lover leaders combine deep industry knowledge with passion.
Campaigner leaders look beyond profit and performance to create positive change.
Diplomat leaders calmly navigate complex and competing needs.
Final summary
About the author

Who is it for?

  • Chief executives wanting to understand leadership styles
  • Board members seeking to appoint the most effective leader to run their companies
  • Aspiring leaders who aim to overcome their weaknesses

What’s in it for me? Discover the inner workings of different leadership styles, so you can play to your strengths.

What are great business leaders like? Hardworking, success-oriented, capable of inspiring others to follow them – sure. But that’s only part of the story.

Not all leaders are cut from the same cloth – and that’s actually good news. Think about somebody who maintains complete control, for instance. She might be fantastic for a complex, sprawling organization – but the same person wouldn’t necessarily suit a creative organization, where collaboration is key.

So what type of leader are you? By understanding this, you can overcome your weaknesses and seek out roles that play to your strengths. That way, you can increase your chances of success and gain those senior positions you’ve always dreamed of.

In these blinks, you’ll learn

  • why a crisis is like candy to some leaders;
  • what type of training every new recruit at Procter & Gamble must do; and
  • the reason not every leader needs to be larger than life.

Alpha leaders are charismatic, dedicated monarchs.

Alpha leaders are charismatic, dedicated monarchs.

It’s a hot summer’s night in August 2015, and 2,000 excited audience members are taking their seats in Salzburg to watch Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This performance is part of Salzburg’s annual opera festival, and one of the best stalls in the opera house has been reserved for Peter Brabeck-Letmathe – chairman of the world’s largest food company, Nestlé.

Nestlé has sponsored the festival, and Brabeck-Letmathe is officially there as the company’s representative. Like at other events he attends, his presence captures people’s attention: he captivates people just as much as any famous tenor, without ever needing to do anything dramatic.

Brabeck-Letmathe is an Alpha leader, charming, confident, and striking. His strong personality has played a key role in leading a company worth £60 billion in annual sales.

You’ll always know when you’re in the presence of alpha leaders. Like true monarchs, they conduct themselves as if they’re the most important people in the room. They’re inspiring, sure, but they’re also intimidating. Staff hang on every syllable they utter and worry over pleasing them.

Alphas firmly believe in themselves and rule accordingly – with absolute control. This style may seem egotistical, but alphas need that level of confidence because they typically lead multinational companies with broad portfolios. There simply isn’t time for second-guessing, or ruling by consensus.

Alphas are future-focused. They know that it takes time to build a kingdom – and they aren’t afraid to wait. This leads them to invest in research and development that will broaden their portfolios even further.

Under Brabeck-Letmathe’s leadership, Nestlé spent 25 years developing the Nespresso coffee-making system. Today, it’s become a staple of homes and offices.

So alphas are committed to the long game; and they’re also competitive. This means that they often stay with one business for decades, moving up the ranks over time.

Let’s think about Brabeck-Lethathe again. By 2015 he’d been with the company for nearly 50 years. Nestlé had been his life’s work.

But the age of the alpha is coming to a close. As the age of globalization fades away, business empires become less attractive. Instead, we’re entering an era where the benefits of inclusivity become more and more apparent. Most boards now question autocratic leadership styles.

If you’re an alpha and you want to continue leading in the contemporary workplace, you need to relax your grip and become more collaborative. Delegate, listen to consumers and stakeholders, and you’ll maintain your place on the throne while keeping step with new business practices.

Fixer leaders are the tough superheroes you need in a crisis.

Fixer leaders are the tough superheroes you need in a crisis.

Dame Moya Greene was just six weeks into her new role as chief executive officer at the UK’s Royal Mail when a crisis occurred. On the Friday before a holiday weekend, she learned that there might not be enough cash flow to make the next payroll.

Luckily, Greene is a Fixer. She was recruited to pull Royal Mail off the brink of collapse, as she’d done with Canada Post and Transport Canada. So, Greene canceled her weekend plans and rolled up her sleeves. By the time the office reopened on Tuesday morning, she had a plan that would address their immediate cash-flow issues.

Fixers are great in a crisis. They’re drawn to situations that look completely hopeless and love nothing more than leaping into the fire and finding ways to put it out.

You need a fixer when your company faces an existential threat: perhaps its infrastructure has failed, or its customer base has disappeared overnight.

Fixers take swift action, and they don’t fear risks. Faced with her cashflow emergency, Greene took a gamble. She asked Royal Mail’s largest creditor for an extension. This alerted some staff that the business was in a dire financial situation. Panic could have broken out any minute.

But Greene’s gamble paid off. It galvanized support for her; and staff recognized she was the only person who could save their jobs.

Fixers, like Greene, have a knack for simplifying complex matters. They’re great at spotting crucial pressure points and homing in on them. Everything else goes right on the back burner.

For an example of how this works in real life, let’s have a look at another fixer, Sir Christopher Bland. He became chairman of BT – a major British telecoms company – when the firm struggled under the burden of a £28 billion pound debt. His solution fitted into a neat to-do list with just four action points. This kept everyone in his team focused on critical action.

Did this make Bland popular with staff? Not necessarily. But fixers don’t tend to care. Unlike alphas, they don’t focus on employees’ feelings. They want to be successful, not popular. And if this means cutting wages or jobs, then so be it.

When the company finally stabilizes, they move on, ready for the next challenge and the next emergency.

Seller leaders are adept communicators who understand customers.

Seller leaders are adept communicators who understand customers.

Six years into his marketing career at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, Sidney Taurel got a job many others would probably shun. His new mission was to spend three months calling into clinics across Ohio to tell doctors about the company’s products.

That short stint as a salesman honed Taurel’s product knowledge and showed him exactly what his customers needed. Twenty years later, Taurel was Lilly’s chief executive. His thorough understanding of the firm’s product range, along with his ability to communicate with customers, proved a powerful combination that transformed a seller – into a leader.

The rise of the service industry has paved the way to a new breed of leaders: the Sellers. In an age where a company’s reputation is always at the mercy of media coverage, being a skilled communicator is an important asset.

Some global firms even make comms part of a standard job description. Think about Procter & Gamble, for instance. The company sells everything from diapers to laundry powder; and each and every one of its new employees must undertake foundational training in sales and marketing.

Perhaps this is why there are so many P&G alumni among senior leaders in other industries – like Fabrizio Freda at fragrance company Estée Lauder or Allison Kirkby at Telia – a major telecoms provider.

These leaders have overcome a seller’s greatest liability – being typecast. If you’re a seller who wants to rise through the ranks, you’ll need to distance yourself from your background in the way that an engineer or scientist would never have to.

Many recruiters and board members see sales as a lightweight occupation. They rarely think about the qualities it demands: resilience, confidence, persuasiveness. To convince a CEO that you’re worthy of a place at the top, you’ll have to diversify your skillset.

Taurel from Lilly focused on finance, for instance. When he ran the firm’s Brazilian branch, he had to renegotiate the terms of credit lines with suppliers, which were crippling the company due to inflation. His financial solutions made its agricultural division sustainable – and also proved that Taurel was more than just a marketing hack.

If you’re a seller, don’t feel that your leadership ambitions are a pipe dream. Sellers understand customer needs more deeply than any other type of leader. In a crowded marketplace that’s heavily influenced by social media, this is extremely valuable.

Founder leaders are driven visionaries who thrive on a challenge.

Founder leaders are driven visionaries who thrive on a challenge.

It’s the summer of 2015. In the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow Airport, holidaymakers are enjoying the buffet, while executives tap on their laptops. A hush falls over them all as Sir Richard Branson – founder of the Virgin Group – enters the lounge. He shakes hands with the staff and then disappears through a side door to discuss Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight from London to Detroit.

Here was an entrepreneur doing what he does best: launching something new.

Branson is the quintessential Founder. He’s creative and unconventional. He wore jeans to meetings long before they became Silicon Valley’s uniform, and his penchant for fun hasn’t stopped him from building an empire that spans cell phones, hotels, and banking services.

Founders are the rock stars of the business world. Famous and rich, they’re hunted by the media who love their antics and success. They love taking risks, and they have a certain glamor that outdazzles other leadership types.

Their stories capture the popular imagination: here’s somebody who had a brilliant idea and developed it into a winning product, and a thriving business. On that journey, they amass followers – loyal colleagues inspired to work alongside them. And they also attract their fair share of fans – people who idolize them.

But behind all this glitz and glamour is a visionary’s years of hard work. Founders may have an unwavering drive, but it arises from their passion about their products. Once they’ve established their empires, it’s this passion that keeps them on the throne, even when lucrative buy-out options are on the table.

To a founder, wealth is nice, but it’s not as important as living the dream.

Because founders have a clear vision and aren’t interested in working for someone else, they’re often motivated to launch start-ups. And they become emotionally invested in them. This can make it hard for a founder to move on even when the time is right.

But once a business is established and all scope for innovation exhausted, founders will inevitably get itchy feet. They excel in the realm of innovation, not in the routine of merely running a well-functioning business machine.

Scion leaders continue family legacies.

Scion leaders continue family legacies.

In September 1982, Jean-François Decaux had to make business calls from a pay phone in Hamburg. This may seem incongruous: after all, his father ran a hugely successful company. If you live in Europe, you’ve almost certainly heard about it: JCDecaux. It sells outdoor adverts.

But Decaux’s father told the youngster that there was no place for him in the French branch of the firm. The young man set out to prove himself to his father. He’d learned German at school – so he headed to Hamburg with the goal of expanding JCDecaux into the neighboring country.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and Decaux is the company’s co-chief executive. In 2019, JCDecaux boasted a net income of €266 million.

Scions are leaders who join a family business. Their opportunity is inherited. But it comes with the enormous pressure to continue building the legacy that their parents and grandparents have created.

Scions don’t just inherit their positions, they also acquire vast, historical knowledge. It’s this background that guides their business strategies. When Decaux called the mayor of Hamburg from that phone booth, he pitched the exact same business model that his father had rolled out across France, Belgium, and Portugal. He persuaded the mayor of Hamburg to agree to a twenty-year contract. Soon afterward, his two brothers were doing the same in Italy and Spain.

Having scions onboard injects fresh perspectives into a business – and that supports longevity. The older generation can easily get set in established business practices. And their stubbornness can be a liability in the contemporary market, with its constantly evolving trends.

For instance, in the late ’90s, the Decaux brothers had to persuade their father that it was time to start acquiring smaller businesses. This went against everything their father believed. But the brothers realized that if they didn’t buy out those businesses, their competitors would, and then the family firm would be muscled out of the market.

It can be a tough gig filling the shoes of a successful parent and, if you’re a scion, expect some flack from those who don’t have the benefit of inherited opportunities. But if you embrace your role as company heir and learn from your predecessors, you’ll earn a reputation as a great leader, not just someone whose only asset is a famous name.

Lover leaders combine deep industry knowledge with passion.

Lover leaders combine deep industry knowledge with passion.

It’s a Saturday morning and the gym in New York is buzzing. Dozens of fitness fanatics stretch and strain to energetic music, and, in the center of it all, instructor Joey Gonzalez leads a class with his trademark, unmatchable enthusiasm. Gonzalez isn’t here because he needs to be; he’s here because he loves fitness. He loves it so much that he still works as a trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp on Saturdays, even though he’s the company’s chief executive.

Fourteen years before rising to the top, Gonzalez joined Barry’s as a member. His love of good health inspired him to become a fitness instructor and, over time, he ascended to lead the fast-growing fitness studio chain. Barry’s isn’t just a job to Gonzalez – it’s a way of life. And that deep connection to his profession makes Gonzalez a Lover leader.

Lovers complement professionalism with deep emotional investment in their cause. Their passion sets them apart from leaders who don’t have that personal connection. When a lover speaks about their products or services, their love shines through. No one can fail to be captivated.

This makes lovers ideal promoters of their businesses. They’re authentic; they really, really believe in what they do. When lovers communicate with potential customers or stakeholders, their message is so infused with that belief that people feel compelled to get on board.

That’s why lover leaders often front commercials, like Jim Koch, who enjoys featuring in company ads for Sam Adams, the beer brand company he cofounded.

Often, lovers become leaders after transforming a hobby into a successful career. Gonzalez is one example of this trend. This means that people like him are living their dream, so they’re less likely to switch industries. As a result, they’re both sound and loyal.

Since their interest in their industry typically began before they were working in it, lovers have accrued a deep knowledge about the field. This is rich background, invaluable for any decision-maker.

If you’re a lover wanting to become a leader, you need to prove that your enthusiasm enhances business performance. After all, leading takes more than just love. You’ll need to manage your passion, especially in a crisis, when a clear head is called for.

But if you can do that, you’ll provide your company with an endless source of energy that will inspire and motivate every one of its workers.

Campaigner leaders look beyond profit and performance to create positive change.

Campaigner leaders look beyond profit and performance to create positive change.

In 2000, Ajay Banga moved to New York to take up a position at investment banking company, Citigroup. This was a high-paying job with a reputable Wall Street institution, but Banga struggled with really simple things. He couldn’t get a cell phone or rent an apartment, for instance. Why? Because this freshly-minted New York banker didn’t have US credit history.

This predicament opened Banga’s eyes to the challenges of being financially excluded from society. So, when Banga became president and chief executive of financial services giant Mastercard in 2010, he decided to fight for financial equality. He felt driven to make the world a better place.

Campaigners like Banga don’t limit their responsibilities merely to what’s good for their companies. They use their firms as springboards for social and environmental impact. Like lovers, they’re passionate about their mission. But their ambitions are global and long-term.

Banga used the international reach of Mastercard to form partnerships with governments and international development organizations. This allowed him to tailor financial programs to the needs of local populations. In Egypt, for example, his company developed a method for women to receive alimony payments directly onto their cards. This meant that they could now avoid the stigma of identifying themselves as divorcees at bank branches.

Banga rolled out 750 financial inclusion programs across 80 countries. Under his leadership, Mastercard gained 500 million new customers. This massive increase in market share kept stakeholders happy – and, all the while, Banga’s firm remained true to his vision of supporting vulnerable communities.

When campaigners are also founders, they can make social impact a core value of their company right from the outset.

This is something outdoor clothing company Patagonia does. It donates 1 percent of all sales to environmental causes. It also allows staff to attend climate protests even during their working hours: in fact, Patagonia closes its shops for this.

Smart leaders understand that maximizing profits is no longer enough, especially if they want to attract talented millennials who are looking for more than just a paycheck. Communities now expect corporations to be socially conscious and environmentally accountable. All this means that the age of the campaigner has now well and truly begun.

Diplomat leaders calmly navigate complex and competing needs.

Diplomat leaders calmly navigate complex and competing needs.

Until 2018, Dame Helen Ghosh was director general of the National Trust – the British charity that maintains public spaces. With its vast collection of notable estates and thousands of acres of land, the National Trust is a far greater part of an average Briton’s life than any public company.

Managing such a vast array of assets involves a massive team: 14,000 staff members, 65,000 volunteers, a 36-person council, and a 12-person board. But that’s not all. There are also families who bequeath their estates to the trust, along with town councils and even local interest groups, who will all have their own opinions on how assets are used.

It was Ghosh’s job to reconcile the demands of every last one of these people.

An organization that faces so many stakeholders call for a special type of leader – one who can exercise restraint and reflect deeply. Diplomats are ideal when you need to balance expert advice against demands of diverse, interested and, above all, vocal parties.

In essence, Ghosh’s role was to listen to stakeholders, then make decisions. Inevitably, many of these attracted heavy criticism. People said it was wrong to put floor cushions in grand houses so people could soak up the atmosphere, or pay a premium price for farmland in the Lake District.

But in every decision, she made, Ghosh worked to find consensus.

Diplomats seek solutions which are inclusive. They use their highly advanced listening skills to gather information and evidence from stakeholders, and then they look for steps that will benefit the majority. That ability to take everyone into consideration makes diplomats valuable in workplaces which strive for equity.

Often, diplomats are appointed to positions of authority by their colleagues. For instance, they may combine two roles: those of a company’s partner and its chief executive.

David Sproul was in this situation when he moved into the leadership role at Deloitte. In 2002, Sproul helped negotiate the sale of a share in his previous firm – Arthur Andersen – to Deloitte. In this deal, he represented the interests of hundreds of Andersen colleagues and partners.

During his tenure at the top of the company, Sproul always found time to discuss shared values with his fellow partners. He stayed deeply connected to their interests while balancing the overall needs of the firm.

Diplomats may not be fast-moving or charismatic. But their light-touch approach to leadership allows them to foster collaboration and promote a shared company identity.

Final Summary

The key message in these blinks is this:

Like people, companies are diverse and experience ongoing change. Because of this, different organizations benefit from different leadership styles at different stages of their lives. Leaders who understand their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities recognize which type of company will benefit most from their particular leadership style. This ability benefits both firms and leaders themselves.

Here is some actionable advice:

If you want to join the next generation of leaders, prepare to face formidable challenges. Human leaders – the ninth type of leader – are future-oriented. Digitally savvy and ready to experiment in rapidly changing business environments, they’re brilliant at problem-solving. They’re also adept at mitigating the social and environmental impacts of their organizations.

To evolve into this type of leader, you need to recognize that decisions you make impact society; and you’ll also need to learn to foster profitability and sustainability, simultaneously.

Another important step is to commit yourself to inclusivity and clear communication. It’s all about creating a human-centric workplace. Recognize that people who work for your company are its core asset. They generate business solutions, sure, but they also act as your company’s advocates.

To become a human leader, then, you need to think about business, the environment, society, and people – all at the same time. This may be tricky, but this is the future.

About the author

James Ashton is a renowned journalist who specializes in finance, business, and the economy. He’s worked as City Editor at the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times, and hosts his own podcast, Leading with James Ashton.

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