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A framework of leadership for the chief executive

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A model for thinking about the leadership role of an organisation's chief executive.

There are many models used to describe leadership, each with its strengths and weaknesses. One I have found useful, especially in relation to the chief executive, is to think of leadership under three headings:

  • establishing direction
  • motivating and aligning people
  • ensuring the organisation is fit for purpose.

Establishing direction

Every organisation and every person in an organisation needs to know where it is going: why it exists, what it is aiming to achieve in the long term, what its next major goal is and how it is going to get there.

It is the chief executive’s job to ensure that direction is established and clear. It is not always the chief executive that decides the direction, though he or she will always be a participant in deciding and often a dominant voice. The chief executive must ensure there is clear direction and they must believe in it.

Using the word direction usually prompts people to think about ‘strategy’. Strategy is a valuable tool for setting and maintaining direction; used well it is a powerful tool in guiding an organisation. But ‘strategy’ also conjures up pictures of elaborate planning exercises and fat documents. Those aren’t essential.

The element you can’t do without – whether or not there is a strategy - is clarity about the long and medium term direction of the organisation. The chief executive must provide that clarity.

Motivating and aligning people

Direction is only useful if everyone understands it, supports it and is motivated to achieve it. Too many organisations have apparently wonderful strategies that no one knows. In others people know what the strategy says; they simply don’t understand it or support it. The net result is that individuals and parts of the organisation pursue different goals.

Getting everyone to pull in the same direction is a key part of the chief executive’s job. That means an extensive and sustained communication exercise, reaching out and listening to every part of the organisation and its stakeholders.

A key audience in this respect is the top team, where one exists. Division or lack of buy-in in the top team will be reflected right through the organisation. Different parts will be trying to achieve different things – often in direct conflict with each other. Conversely, investment by the chief executive in achieving alignment within the top team will pay huge dividends in developing a united organisation.

Ensuring the organisation is fit for purpose

Even if direction is clear and people are behind it, the organisation may not be able to fulfil its aims, because it is not fit for its chosen purpose. If so, it will need to change the way it operates and the resources it calls upon.

So the questions that might be asked could include:

  • What resources do we need? 
  • Do we have the right structure?  
  • Do we have the right people?
  • Do we have the right skills? (do we, for example, need to bring in fundraisers or communications specialists?)
  • Are people organised in the right way?
  • Are they being managed in the right way?
  • Are the right systems – finance, HR, IT, facilities – in place?
  • Do we have the right policies?

In larger organisations, most of this will be tackled by other managers. But in every organisation the chief executive must ensure it is tackled, and some elements they must tackle themselves – in particular those relating to the top team. 

Getting it right in order to suceed

The chief executive’s role is a complicated and difficult one. However, if they ensure these three elements are addressed well, the organisation will have a high chance of succeeding.

Page last edited Jul 20, 2017
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