The Leadership Elephant

I’ll start with a simple confession – I’ve read far too much on the subject of leadership.

While I’m at it, here’s confession number two – I’m jaded by the amount of authors who claim to have figured out the leadership solution.

This is well illustrated by The Fable of The Blind Men of the Elephant. In this poem, each man defines an elephant – an animal they have never encountered – based upon the unique body part they can feel. Since each of the men are each touching different parts – the trunk, the leg, the ear, etc. – each provide an accurate description of one component of the elephant. However, a lack of synthesis of their observations results in exaggerated and incomplete viewpoints.

Leadership literature often fails on the same premise. While authors and speakers provide valuable insights about leadership, they often promise the whole elephant instead of understanding and embracing the fact that they are defining a part.  As a result of my frustration, I began looking for a means of looking at the whole leadership elephant and not just the parts. I sought a framework which would help me sort through the clutter.

This pilgrimage was guided by the advice of a former communications professor (thank you Dr. Strom!). He taught me that great communicators use figurative ‘pegs’ to hang their ideas on. When done effectively, these pegs help listeners make sense of the subject matter. When pegs are used effectively, it helps complex subjects seem simple. So I embarked on a journey to understand the pegs on which the various parts of the leadership elephant could belong.

As I reviewed a myriad of leadership literature I discovered three pegs or themes on which almost all leadership concepts can be categorized. They are as follows:

  1. WHO is a leader? This focuses on the identity of a leader.
  2. WHY do leaders lead? This delves into the motivation of a leader.
  3. WHAT do leaders do?  These involves the measures & outcomes of a leader.

So how is this helpful? Together, WHO, WHY and WHAT envelope almost every concept you read in leadership literature. For example, Jon Kotter’s famous book, Leading Change, primarily focuses on what a leader does. Ten Engstrom’s The Making of a Christian Leader, focuses extensively on who a leader is based on biblical standards. Robert Greenleaf’s model of servant leadership focuses heavily on why a leader leads. While leadership  books  or speeches often touch more than one category, you will find that authors typically have a predominant focus on one of these three components.

This concept is simply illustrated by using something that I call the triadic leadership model (Figure 1). The triadic concept is not my own and is supported by social science research. In short, the core strength of triadic thinking is that is ways to present an integrated whole while also demonstrating the interplay and tension between the individual components. When it is used to define leadership, triadic thinking provides three simple pegs on which to hang leadership ideas.

leadership elephant

Figure 1

For example, Donald Trump’s television show, The Apprentice,demonstrates strong themes from the WHY corner of the triad. Trumpian leadership focuses on money as the reason that to lead. In contrast, a biography about Mother Theresa will reveal a very different why – to serve others. As the leadership triad has become seared into my leadership worldview, I find myself using this filter to contextualize leadership concepts. If you are speaking of vision, I know you are dealing with the WHAT of leadership. When you focus on desirable leadership traits I understand you are referring to the WHO of leadership.

At this point I must state a clear caveat. While the model of triadic leadership has helped me understand leadership in a deeper way, I do not purport it to be the answer to leadership studies. Rather, I hope it will be a means to assist you as you try to make sense of the complex leadership elephant.

As you consider this model, I invite your insights about the following questions:

  1. How does this model help you understand leadership better?
  2. What aspects of leadership do not fit into the triadic leadership model?
  3. Which corner of the triad is most prevalent in what you read or hear about leadership?

Note: This blog was previously published on the web site of my friend and colleague, Paul Sohn

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Head ShotJeff Suderman is a consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


What if everything rises and falls on followership?

A well-worn leadership adage states that “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. I was once an ardent supporter of this belief. As an emerging leader, it made me feel important and it validated much of my work and academic career. After all, leaders make things happen!

As time passed, I came to an important realization – this statement is only a half-truth! In fact, I can only support the premise if it is coupled with my paradoxical title. If this was phrased as a logic statement it would read:

Everything rises and falls on leadership IS TRUE IF everything also rises and falls on followership.

In order to understand this supposition we must reframe followership and reclaim the full richness of this significant and powerful role. Here are three things we must do to accomplish this:

REFRAME 1: Lose the hierarchy

The term “follower is not synonymous with subordinate”.[1]

It is unfortunate that the word follower has become a word that connotes lack of power, subservience or a less desirable position. I recently heard someone tell their child, “You are a leader, not a follower!” While the intent of this is noble, it’s simply not true! We do not always lead! The role of a follower is not any less noble than that of a leader nor are effective followers second class. It would appear that the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest attitude has erringly seeped into our beliefs about the importance of leaders and has turned followers into nothing more than a by-product of leadership.

In his book The Power of Followership Robert Kelley reminds us that the demarcation between followers and leaders is not as clear as literature makes it to be.[2] In fact, if you examine your daily behaviors you will find that you switch roles between that of a leader and a follower dozens of times each day. If this is true, then we must reestablish equality between leaders and followers. We must lose the hierarchy.

A leader without followers is simply someone taking a walk. Therefore, a leader is defined by the presence of followers. As we abandon hierarchy we give power to the role of followership.

REFRAME 2: Recognize the power of followership

“Followership is not a term of weakness, but the condition that permits leadership to exist and give it strength”.[3]

Have you ever considered how much power followers actually have? Kelley reminds us that “followers determine not only if someone will be accepted as a leader but also if that leader will be effective”.[4] Chaleff endorses the need for empowered followers when he reminds us that “parity [between leaders and followers is] approached when we recognize that leaders rarely use their power wisely or effectively over long periods unless they are supported by followers who have the stature to help them do so”.[5]

A recent trip to the U.S. Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. reminded me about the power of followership. Countless citizens sacrificed everything to stand up to a Nazi regime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a towering example of a follower who refused to be passive. In fact, Bohnoeffer demonstrates how followers who actively exercise their power, paradoxically become leaders. Stated negatively, how many passive followers contributed to the rise of Nazism?

In high school biology we learned that symbiosis is the process by which two organisms rely on each other in order to survive. Natural symbiosis has no pecking order, priority or hierarchy. It is simply a coexistence that provides equality through shared benefit. This is how we should view leaders and followers. Leaders and followers both possess power and the right to exercise it. There is tremendous power in the role of active followership.

REFRAME 3: Embrace mutual accountability

How often have we heard people express thankfulness that they are not leaders because this means they are not responsible for the result? In order to lose the hierarchy and fully embrace the power of followership, followers must respond by sharing accountability with leaders. I call this active followership.Purpose

Mutual accountability shifts the focus from followers and leaders and, instead, refocuses on purpose (Figure 1).[6] Challeff notes that “leaders and followers are both forms of stewardship which are directed to the organizations purpose and stakeholders”.[7] In other words, when we shift our mindset to one of stewardship, many of our misperceptions about leaders and followers are reframed. As both leaders and followers align themselves around organizational purpose, a shared goal catalyzes efforts.[8]

Both followers and leaders are important and unique. As each party mobilizes around a clear purpose, hierarchy falls away, power becomes shared and leaders and followers share accountability.

The Goal – Everything rises and falls on followership…and leadership

“The word right makes no sense without the word left” and so too is leadership and followership.[9]

Allow me to conclude with an illustration that demonstrates the power of active followership. As the Russian dynasty crumbled in the late 1980’s, Lithuania was the first country to declare their independence from the USSR (March 11, 1990). About six months prior to this, a little-known event called The Baltic Way served as a critical catalyst to this bold declaration. In a public display of solidarity and a desire for independence, about 2 million citizens of the countries of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia joined hands on public roadways and formed a continuous human chain that spanned three countries and over 600 km. Approximately 1 in 4 citizens in these three countries joined this human chain that stretched the equivalent of the distance from San Diego to San Francisco. This demonstration by millions of active followers, became a foundation which emboldened Lithuania to declare independence from the Soviet Union six months later.

“Followers at their best…participate with enthusiasm, intelligence, and self-reliance – but without star billing – in the pursuit of organizational goals”.[10]

This is why everything rises and falls on followership as much as it does on leadership.

This blog post appeared concurrently on the blog site of my friend and colleague, Paul Sohn.


[1]  Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, p. 15.
[2]  Kelley, R. (1992). The power of followership. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency, p. 28.
[3]  Chaleff, p. 19
[4]  Kelley, p. 13
[5]  Chaleff, p. 1
[6]  Chaleff, p. 3
[7]  Chaleff, p. 17
[8]  Chaleff, p. 4
[9]  Kelley, p. 44
[10]  Kelley, p. 27