What colour is your leadership?

Author Dr David Pendleton

Published 18.4.2018


The Primary Colours Model of Leadership describes three leadership domains – strategic, operational, and interpersonal – each assigned with a signature colour – red, blue and green.

“I do believe in complete leadership,” says David Pendleton, Professor in Leadership at Henley Business School, “but complete leadership is almost impossible to achieve on your own. Leadership requires multiple actors with complimentary skill-sets and personalities.”

Pendleton holds that today’s leadership demands are so broad only extraordinary individuals can master it all. Take the mindset of a strategist, which pulls thoughts away from detail and into overviews; and away from the present into images of the future. In contrast, the mindset of an operator must focus on the present, dealing with facts within a timeframe that is immediate.

In a recent study by Paul Leinwand, Cesare Mainardi and Art Kleiner (2015), it was found that only 8% of executives were good at both devising strategy and implementing it, whereas 35% were considered not to be very good at either. In Pendleton’s own consulting career, he and his colleagues have assessed several thousand executives and found not a single example of a leader who was world-class in all aspects of leadership. “The complete leader may be hard to find, but complete leadership is not,” Pendleton reassures, “it is simply the province of teams rather than individuals.”

Complete leadership through diversity

In his book ‘Leadership: all you need to know’, Pendleton sets out his Primary Colours Model of Leadership®. He describes three leadership domains – strategic, operational, and interpersonal – each assigned with a signature colour – red, blue and green. Lights of these three colours combine to produce pure white light, which has all the colours of the rainbow within it.

Pendleton’s Primary Colours® model, when put into action, shows how incomplete leaders can learn to work in the right teams to accomplish more complete and effective leadership.

“If you can get the three leadership domains to be equally strong among your leadership team, you have all the potential for complete leadership,” Pendleton explains. “And the primary colours metaphor is designed to say that implicitly.” Diversity is key.

Do you develop leaders or leadership?

Leadership teams that are complete because they are complementary are better able to cope with contextual changes, switching the focus of their leadership among members whose capabilities are best suited to current specific demands. “Individual leaders find this much harder because their habits, preferences, perceptions and skills have been adapted to more narrow ranges of experience,” Pendleton explains.

While the advantages of group leadership are becoming widely accepted in today’s business circles, it begs the question: “If we can lead better in teams, why don’t we then develop our leaders in teams?” Organisations typically send on courses a cross-section of participants from different divisions – one from Marketing, one from Sales and another from HR, or elsewhere. “Why don’t they also take a vertical slice?” This would enable entire teams to develop the ability to lead well together instead of just focusing on themselves as individual leaders. In other words, Pendleton argues: “Leader development may focus on individuals but leadership development is a matter for teams.”

Dr David Pendleton will be presenting his Primary Colours® model at the Henley BusinessClass on Tuesday, 15.5.2018 in Helsinki. 


Dr David Pendleton

David is Professor in Leadership at Henley Business School. He works extensively in executive education, and he is also a business psychologist, educator, consultant and author. David completed a doctorate in psychology at Oxford University and devoted the first half of his career to research and teaching in doctor-patient communication.