The Leadership Elephant

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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


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