The Leadership Elephant: The Triadic Tensions of Leadership

I’m privileged to introduce you to one of my friends Jeff Suderman. He has written a guest blog below. Jeff is a management consultant that works with businesses and non-profit organizations. He helps organizations identify business challenges and develop solutions which help achieve mission effectiveness. He completed his Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University and been awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Gold Medal for Academic Achievement. Jeff can be reached at jlsuderman@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

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. However, I decided to find an answer that was both effective and could be understood by my children!

This pilgrimage was guided by the advice of a former communications professor. 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 it’s done very effectively, it makes complex subjects seem simple. So I embarked on a journey to understand the common 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 are 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 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 model is not my own and is supported in both research and usage in the social sciences. In short, the core strength of triadic thinking is that is ways to present an integrated whole and also represent the tension between the individual components. When it is used to define leadership, triadic thinking provides three simple pegs on which to hang the leadership ideas which you hear.

leadership elephantFor example, if you watch Donald Trump’s television show, The Apprentice, you will find strong themes in 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 almost every leadership concept I hear. If you are speaking of vision, I know you are dealing with the WHAT of leadership. When you focus on the importance of title or position 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.

Over the next several weeks I will guest post three more blog topics. Each of them will provide a second-level look at each of the three corners of the triad. WHO will examine how power typically is used to define leaders. WHY will delve into the field of philosophy to understand the three motivations which determine why we lead. The WHAT topic will cover the macro measures and outcomes of leadership.

In the meantime, I invite your dialogue about the following questions:

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

photoJeff Suderman owns Suderman Solutions Consulting, a management consulting company that works with businesses and non-profit organizations. He helps organizations identify business challenges and develop solutions which help achieve mission effectiveness. His specializes in the area of strategic foresight, strategic planning, alignment, leadership development and enhancing team effectiveness. He is especially passionate about ensuring that foresight is used to enhance the limitations of traditional strategic planning efforts. He completed his Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University (VA) and been awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Gold Medal for Academic Achievement. Mr. Suderman has spent over 22 years as an administrator in Post-Secondary Education industry and lives in California. He can be reached at jlsuderman@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.