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Miranda Wheatley Price

Rubica Change & Analytics

Director of Organisational Change

Read more from Miranda Wheatley Price

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Leaders: when the going gets tough, which hat do you wear?

Leaders wear many hats in the workplace, but knowing when to wear which hat is a crucial skill.

Leaders are in the most significant hybrid role of this century. When resources are tight, expectations high, and the competitive environment at its most challenging, leaders are expected to fulfil three roles well: most reliable expert, effective manager and inspiring leader. These are dubbed ‘the three hats'.

When the ‘wrong’ hat is consistently used in the ‘wrong’ circumstances, however, it can detract from our personal and subsequently team’s performance.

The expert hat

  • Honing and applying knowledge and technical skills to real life situations.
  • Impacting internal and external customers to deliver value.
  • Building a network to align expertise to critical business needs. 

The manager hat

  • Delivering results through others.
  • Deploying your expertise to implement critical strategies.
  • Knowing when to mentor versus coach.
  • Ensures a team are motivated, committed and delivering to the best of their ability.

The leader hat

  • Focussing a division on what great performance is and what needs to be done to deliver it.
  • Accelerating change across people, processes, customers, culture and strategy to improve performance.
  • Inspiring and facilitating managers and experts to execute exceptionally well. 
  • See the company as a whole - finding the best solutions for business and customers.

Reaching for the most comfortable hat

Question: which is your favourite hat when the going gets tough?

Expertise comes from honing skills as we repeatedly deliver a range of solutions to meet and control the challenges we most often meet. It’s like cooking regularly – we subconsciously reach for our favourite recipes, adding and stirring in a range of ingredients we’ve learned to keep in the cupboard. Typically the answer is ‘expert’. Yet over-reliance on this hat is potentially damaging as it creates a team dependency on the leader, underutilises talent, and reduces the possibility of innovation.  

Our expertise becomes a subconscious frame of reference. So when someone comes into the kitchen – or our office - at a pressured moment, we default to issuing instructions:

  • “Try using this” 
  • “Don’t do that”
  • “Add exactly this amount.”

The chef is the expert - a leader who instructs, tells and informs. 

This behaviour can be useful to rapidly overcome challenges that suddenly present themselves. Yet wearing the expert hat means using an ‘agenic’ style of leadership - described as individualistic, self-assertive and signals a defence pattern to uncertainty.

The problem with this is it encourages others to submit rather than ask questions – creating a high dependency on a leader amongst manager and teams.

What do you do?

According to Connor (1992) we are at our most vulnerable when surprised by the impact of a change we did not expect. As human beings, we have a high desire for control and instinctively see this as a threat rather than an opportunity to innovate beyond our current knowledge and skills – this is when we reach for the expert hat.

Leaders need to fully acknowledge the value of the expert role in others, and encourage and challenge experts across divisions to network cross-functionally and externally to put their expertise to best use in the business context.

This means having an acute mindfulness of when to wear an expert hat, by asking: How long would it take the organisation to recover if the decision was not the right one? What impact could it have on the business? How complex would it be to fix the failure? If the risks are high, then it’s time to wear your expert hat with conviction and lead with clear direction. But if the risks are acceptable, consider taking an inclusive approach to get the most benefit from your team’s expertise and the opportunity to further develop it in a ‘real time’ situation. 

Tip one:

Recognise the importance of developing expert roles in our teams and around the business – hold your own expertise lightly and reserve it for high risk situations that require a rapid response. By default, adopt a day to day mentorship role, sharing aspects of your expertise that are proven and acknowledge when another expert may be better.

As leaders, why are we reluctant to pick up the manager’s hat? 

Charan & Drotter state that learning to deliver results through others is the hardest value for any leader to learn. This is despite it being one of the first and important behaviours we need as we climb the ladder from expert to manager. 

We all know managers who have been promoted because of their outstanding expertise, rather than their management potential. This compounds the ‘manager as the expert’ belief – advancement is based on their technical knowledge and skills value, so in a new role with a higher profile, this feels more important than ever.

Many experts-turned-managers default to micromanagement – constantly checking what their reports have delivered, to be absolutely sure it’s been done in line with their own expertise.

The problem is that they simply don’t have the time and capacity to personally intervene in every aspect of the overall responsibilities in their remit.

Moreover, the doubt, fear of failure, and insistence on the importance of 100% first time success overrides the value of encouraging others to learn their own frame of reference for success.

Managers then wonder why they are so stretched - complaining team members are not taking accountability.

Tip two:

Putting on your manager’s hat means spending time with your own reporting managers to reflect on their personal and team development plans. These processes support teams and individuals to pinpoint technical and leadership capabilities that are critical to their development, to show clear progression and encourage everyone to take accountability.

Leaders can support team development by mentoring and coaching managers through the process e.g. How is the team being developed to best execute critical strategies?

How will results be recognised – and how will you recognise your managers for delivering success through others rather than doing it themselves? This is fundamental to redefining what success looks like for managers.

Finally, be honest and open - is the manager capable of devising and delivering a team development plan in line with business needs or is further support required?

What is the answer for leaders who want to be mindful of all three hats?

In the last three years, Rubica has undertaken qualitative research with leaders who are identified as the highest performers within their speciality. They share common qualities, which show their effectiveness within their hybrid role – these being:

  1. High performing leaders develop mindfulness. Ask yourself, what is your favourite hat and how is your tendency to wear it most often benefiting your business, team and function? 
  2. Attention to how the division develops from all three viewpoints – leader, manager and expert. This is a habit of team and self-development through mentoring, guiding, coaching and reflection on both the ‘good’ and ‘needs improvement’ areas as a team and division. 
  3. The ability to identify and accelerate changes that deliver a step up in performance.


All three hats have a place in driving the performance and capability of any division that’s striving to achieve goals in an environment where the pace is fast and change is constant. Throughout these pressures, excellent leaders maintain high mindfulness of which hat they pick up and when.

They act not only to take control when the stakes are highest but also to develop others so they can, in turn, readily adopt the same hats. 

In this way accountability is shared, organisations become increasingly sustainable and everyone feels securely supported by a measured combination of exceptional expertise, motivational managers and inspired leadership. 

Author Profile Picture
Miranda Wheatley Price

Director of Organisational Change

Read more from Miranda Wheatley Price

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