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The Effectiveness-Lab

Leaders learning to be chameleons

Last week, we came across a seminal McKinsey Quarterly article that put all we have ready on leadership traits in good and realistic context.

Effective leaders are chameleonic
Effective leaders are chameleonic

McKinsey Quarterly in the article ‘getting beyond the BS of leadership literature’ articulates why success at the modern organisation is not about certain pedigree of a leader.  To the contrary, it is about the context a particular organisation finds itself in and the leadership style that is deployed by the board of directors, other appointing authority, or the leader at the helm.

In very basic terms this is what Mckinsey Quarterly is alluding to: ‘leaders aren’t born but made’.  Leadership shall derive effectiveness for organisations if there is fit between organisational context and leadership archetype. These two critical variables need situating within the overall organisational fabric.

Just like the manufacturer of a certain industry product studies the market before embarking on the design of a new or improved product, leaders ought to be appointed or behave in ways that fit both organisational context and leadership archetype; organisational context is the market, appointing authorities should aim to design appropriate products for – i.e. leadership archetype.

The above is equivalent to asking the question: ‘given where we are at as an organisation, what type of leader will serve us best?’; this question is different from: ’given the type of organisation we are, what type of leader is always best for us?

The McKinsey Quarterly discusses five leader archetypes that have served organisations very well – call them for purposes of this blog, effective leadership archetypes. Below, we juxtapose the McKinsey Quarterly’s effective leadership archetype classification with that of Effectiveness-Lab:

1. The values purist:

This type of leader brings their moral DNA to the table – they believe in and espouse a values-driven approach to leadership. This leader’s approach is all geared to creating an environment at the organisation where humanistic values come before anything else. Such a leader will push for:

  • A good organisational climate – for those in the hospitality sector, this is equivalent to guaranteeing at work: ‘a home away from home!’
  • A strong values regime especially: integrity and respect for other human beings

2.  The Chameleonic leader:

This type of leader places pragmatism before anything else. The chameleonic leader’s approach to business is determined by the likelihood of success; in their mind, business is about the practicality of applications and likelihood of achieving success. Chameleonic leadership styles manifest through:

  • a high sense of flexibility – the end justifies the means
  • morally wrong actions are justified to achieve morally correct outcomes
  • such type of leader is big on ‘consequentialism’ – we have seen this kind of leadership behaviour amongst the leadership of ‘elite’ nations and their ‘mandate/s’ to attack and overthrow bonafide governments in Iraq and Libya
  • such type of leader may at times sacrifice truth for wanted outcomes – the latter is anathema in the eyes of the moral purist above
  • such type of leader can oscillate like a pendulum across leadership archetypes. They may choose to act the moral purist to achieve certain outcomes where staff buy-in is a must; but at some point may turn autocratic, when time bound and critical decisions to save the organisation are required

3. The drill master:

This type of leader is the king or queen in the kraal – the driller, whatever we want to call it, is characterised by individual control of most decisions. Drill master’s choose based on their idea and philosophy – they have fundamental belief in their philosophy and they will push to achieve what is ideal to them, at any cost

It ought to be noted that ‘drilling’ can be disguised as ‘values-purity’, especially when drill masters indoctrinate a team of ‘believers’ into accepting their philosophy. Friends, let us not put lipstick on a pig and try calling it something else – it is still a pig! The drill master style manifests through:

  • obsession with their way of doing business
  • ruthlessness to those opposed to their philosophy
  • personal love for those that buy into their way of conducting business
  • leader cult status, should success come their way – success is translated into valuable individual brand
  • Those familiar with European football may know the famous Pep Guardiola: he is a drill master


Read more about

The Rainbow effect Organisation

Gabazira’s blog – The Effectiveness-lab:
Stop calling yourself a change management expert


The moral of the story:

Leadership literature and practitioners have led many to believe that leadership archetypes and the values that accrue from each are a linear, black and white matter.

The insinuation that leadership is about being born with one of the three generic archetypes above or indeed others we may not have defined in this blog, and turning individual leadership archetype preferences into a persona/individual brand to colour your curriculum vitae with, is flawed.

Indeed, it is a disservice to consider oneself a purist of any of the leadership archetypes. After all, the modern organisation has mutated so much and shall continue to do so, that it is difficult to attain organisational archetype purity. The world has witnessed organisations that are a bureaucracy for one year, an adhocracy the year next, and a combination of both at certain points in time. The age of leadership and organisational archetypes in black or white is long past – leaders and organisations they lead are manifesting more and more as shades of many colours – the so-called rainbow effect at the modern organisation

The truth is:

  1. Leadership style fit is determined by context at the organisation
  2. Leadership style is, therefore, time bound, since context can’t last forever
  3. Organisation boards and other appointing authority need to get the fit between Organisational Development (OD) state vs. leadership archetype right – both in the appointment as well as supervision of CEO’s
  4. It is no surprise that leadership tenure at the modern organisation is becoming ever shorter

The chameleonic leader, for their pragmatism and agile contextual-fit, is the effective-leader-archetype of choice for the Effectiveness Lab


5 responses to “Leaders learning to be chameleons”

  1. […] week the Effectiveness-lab discussed certain effective-leadership archetypes and accompanying behavioral traits. Leaders grapple with a critical challenge – […]


  2. Hi Apollo,

    When reading this post, I reflected a lot on my leadership style…
    I also reflected on the leadership styles of various CDs we’ve had.
    I believe that the style of leadership most of the time is infuenced by the context someone operates in.
    I remember one Boss we had who was sensitive on integrity. His leadership was driven by value (integrity) and as a result at a certain point of time all staff had adopted this value. But my question is : after he left had he really created true followers or simply staff had adopted that value by fear???



    1. Clarisse: thanks for taking time out of your very busy schedule to read the blog

      Yes, leadership is indeed about context – that is the premise behind chameleonic leadership. Yet, even as we consider context and its influence on leadership, as leaders, we have to be grounded in our own principles that should not be necessarily influenced by context. For example, a leader that runs an organisation on a firm foundation of transparency and integrity, should not change their style and belief b’se they are working in a corrupt environment

      Such a leader can however mitigate action and still get to their anticipated end point! For example, if I knew that in a certain country, courts are lenient to the corrupt and that we will have corrupt staff reinstated against our will; I will opt to preempt corruption way before it happens – that way, I will have avoided becoming a high-priest of corruption at the organisation, but would still have managed to stay within my values-box

      On the important point of people acting b’se they FEAR a leader as opposed to a genuine and sustainable values change, I agree that at times people follow simply b’se they fear reprimand. Knowing we are dealing with human beings, that come with deeply ingrained beliefs, it comes down to appointing authorities putting on organisational pedestals, the right kind of leader. A leader that will provide leadership relevant to the times the organisation finds itself in. This is mentioned in the last paragraph of the blog



  3. Herbert Mugumya Avatar
    Herbert Mugumya

    You have helped me understand better leadership styles of my different bosses and also re examined my style. I have always wanted to know the answer to this interview Question “what is your leadership or management style”….always guessed…lol


    1. Kairu – you have really made me laugh tonight! Looking fwd to seeing you at the graduation

      I was unable to come see you as I literally had one day in Dar!


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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