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Figurehead in Management: Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Jennifer Wiley-Cordone

Unless you're talking about a carved image on the bow of a ship, a figurehead is defined as a person with a title but no real authority. Could this mean that the term 'figurehead managerial role' is an oxymoron? Read on to find out more about the purpose and function of this role.

We also recommend watching Management By Exception: Definition and Limitations and Classical Management Theory (1900-1930): Definition

Who hasn't seen a TV character living in a fabulous mansion with unlimited resources at their fingertips? In these fantasy versions of real-life, they are rarely working long hours at the office or burdened with any other responsibilities, like handling crises, reprimanding employees, or writing reports for the CEO. They have only the symbols of power, without the associated responsibility; they are simply figureheads.

How can 'figurehead' be an actual managerial responsibility or role? Let's look more closely at managerial roles to understand how the figurehead fits in context. Next we'll look at the connotation of the term before we dive into the functions of the role.

Managerial Roles

Think back to past experiences you've had in managing a project - no matter how large or small. You needed several different skills to accomplish your goals. You probably didn't know at that time who management professor Henry Mintzberg was. It's unlikely you were familiar with his observation-based research of CEOs, middle managers, and supervisors and its significance in business management literature. Even so, you would still have been likely to recognize most of the ten different roles Mintzberg identified. He has organized the roles into three categories:

Figurehead Managerial Role
Figurehead Managerial Role

  • Informational management roles are communication-based.
  • Decisional management roles are action-based roles for making and implementing decisions.
  • Interpersonal management roles are relationship-based.

The figurehead role is one of three interpersonal roles. Why? Isn't a figurehead empty and meaningless? What does it have to do with interpersonal managerial roles? There must be more to it, or it wouldn't be in a business lesson!

What Does Figurehead Mean?

What comes to mind when thinking of the term figurehead is a person with the trappings of power, but not its usage. As it happens, this negative connotation is primarily a U.S. understanding of the term figurehead. This may lead to some confusion because Mintzberg used it positively as something a manager should do. A popular on-line dictionary provides four definitions of a figurehead. Excluding the actual image on the bow of a ship, the other definitions are negative, including: '1) A person used as a cover for some questionable activity, and 2) a person who allows his name to be used to give standing to enterprises in which he has no responsible interest or duties; a nominal, but not real, head or chief.' Not really something you would want to encourage in business school.

Given that Henry Mintzberg is Canadian, it is useful to look at other usages of the term. In British usage, the term is neutral or positive, simply meaning a person who embodies the values of an organization. This is not surprising, given that European monarchs are frequently described without rancor or derision as figureheads for the government. So, for readers in the U.S., let's scrub off the term and put it back to good use. Now we'll all learn more about the figurehead role as one of ten overall roles a manger might have in a given day - even if only for ten minutes or less.

The Figurehead Managerial Role

A figurehead is a necessary role for a manager who wants to inspire people within the organization to feel connected to each other and to the institution, to support the policies and decisions made on behalf of the organization, and to work harder for the good of the institution. A figurehead conducts social, legal, and ceremonial responsibilities and uses these as opportunities to motivate members of the institution.

Examples of the figurehead managerial role include a senator at a ground breaking ceremony with a golden shovel or a senior executive attending the family wedding of an employee. While the figurehead might speak publicly in the role, the purpose of these speeches is not to inform (spokesperson) but to inspire and unify (figurehead). Think of Roosevelt's fireside chats or State of the Union Addresses; those speeches weren't about presenting new information, but about discussing American values and beliefs.

Colin Firth portrayed King George VI
Colin Firth Thinks of King George VI

The critically acclaimed movie, The King's Speech, is an excellent example of the importance of the figurehead role. Speaking to his speech therapist, the new King yells out in frustration, 'If I'm King, where's my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can't speak.' The movie is not a documentary about King George VI overcoming his stutter and learning the art of public speaking. Instead, it is the rousing story of a man taking on the responsibility of figurehead by becoming the voice of the British people and instilling national pride at a crucial moment in history.

Lesson Summary

The figurehead managerial is one of ten roles performed by a manager and one of three interpersonal roles. When figurehead is the only role performed by a person stripped of responsibility or attempting to attach his or her reputation to an unsavory enterprise, the term has a negative meaning. Mintzberg, however, defined the role positively: its purpose is to personify an institution, communicate its values, and inspire its members.

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