Here’s part 2 of my friend Jeff Suderman’s guest post on THE LEADERSHIP ELEPHANT.  Jeff is a management consultant that works with businesses and non-profit organizations. He helps organizations by improving organizational health and strategic clarity. Jeff can be reached at or on LinkedIn.

leadership elephant

In my last guest blog, I outlined a model of triadic leadership as a means to understand different components of leadership. In summary, it provides elements (Figure 1), which when viewed together, form three foundational elements of leadership. In this post, I will provide a short synopsis of one of the corners of the triad – why a leader leads.

The idea of digging into the heart of why we lead requires that we ask foundational questions about leaders’ values and beliefs. In an era defined by self-empowerment, self-promotion and ‘selfies’, this level of introspection is not popular. To illustrate the point, try to think of a leadership book that deals with why leaders lead.

Why we lead may be the defining element of leadership. This is illustrated by the ageless debate about tyrannical leaders. Was Hitler or Stalin an effective leader? In absence of asking the ‘why’ question, this become a topic for endless discussion. They exhibited elements of most leadership definitions: they held leadership positions and exerted influence over others (who a leader is) as well as achieved goals rather effectively (what a leader does). However, when you ask why they led you are forced to evaluate their leadership motive and a much deeper discussion ensues.

Efforts to understand the core reasons behind why we lead require that we delve into the field of philosophy. To keep things simple (something philosophy often lacks), the answer to ‘why’ we lead is derived from our personal values. Values are the compilation of our beliefs and in turn, these beliefs regulate our actions.[1] Here is a simple summary of how our values form three different leadership perspectives:

  1. Me: When an individual believes that values are self-derived, they lead for reasons they create themselves. This explains the behavior of despotic leaders like Hitler but it also helps us understand charismatic, narcissistic or “because I said so” leadership styles. However, the “I” is not always clearly evident and can be hard to discern when several people work together very effectively because their individualistic values match. Donald Trump would be a modern example of a ‘me’ leadership style.
  2. Us: This perspective believes that values are created when others think and believe the same way. In contrast to “I” motivation, these leaders lead for the benefit of “us”. This can manifest in humanistic leadership styles (e.g. – global relief agencies) or become sectarian as evidenced by political parties or by groups who tackle divisive social issues such as child vaccination.  The United Nations seeks to exemplify the ‘us’ leadership style
  3. Him: This final reason to lead acknowledges that values are not created by man. Instead, they are divine in origin.  As a result, why we lead is shaped by an external force. Who or what this divine being is will vary based on culture, religion and education. It is important to note that while the ideal of leading for a higher purpose is sought, in practice, it can easily morph into the other motives noted above (think of churches that split because of disagreement over the color of the new carpet). A missionary or the Salvation Army Volunteer ringing a bell at Christmas demonstrates ‘Him’ leadership motivation.

Value formation helps us understand why leadership is defined and practiced differently. Our personal belief – me, us or Him – influence how we act, what we deem important or unimportant and defines what is right or wrong. Understanding why we lead also helps us to understand ourselves, others and the activities we choose to undertake. Answering the why question is both a foundational and missing ingredient in leadership.

As someone who believes that ‘iron sharpens iron’, I welcome your feedback and insights. If you are interested in receiving my Johari model which outlines the motives of leaders please contact me.

 Jeff SudermanJeff Suderman is a strategist, a futurist and a leadership junkie. He owns Suderman Solutions, a management consulting firm that works with businesses and non-profit organizations. He helps organizations by improving organizational health and strategic clarity. He completed his Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University and can be reached at, or via Twitter (@jlsuderman).  


[1] Boudon, R. (2001). The origin of values: Sociology and philosophy of beliefs. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

  • Daniel

    I am curious if a set of circumstances, timing and people come together to bring leadership to the forefront?

    • Jeff Suderman

      At times, this is true Daniel. For example, George Washington was a key figure of influence in the founding of America. In fact, his decisions and leadership led his followers to request that the become king of the newly emerging America. While he passed on this opportunity, an amazing example of humility and servant leadership, circumstances, timing and his persona/abilities provide a real-life answer to your question. (Source of George Washington content: Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas).

  • Dan Erickson

    Great post, Jeff. I’m not a leader in the traditional sense, but I am a teacher and that takes an “us” style to do well. I’m an influencer through writing, that works out of “Him.” I think there can be a healthy combination of the three.

    • Jeff Suderman

      Thanks for the reply Dan. I’m not a leader in the traditional sense either so I appreciate your perspective! As I noted above with D. Acree, what I like about this model is that the ‘How’ of the triad, or what the cake looks like’, is extremely diverse!

      In theory, the three motives of leadership separate nicely. In practice, there is often a combination of the three as you note above. I think it could be argued that this combination could be healthy or unhealthy. The values component of the Why corner of the triad makes it difficult to find a shared perspective from which to discuss this topic (e.g. – an anarchist could present a compelling case that “Me/I” perspective is the most valid one based on his value proposition).

  • Thoughtful post, Jeff. All 3 points are excellent.

    • Hey Skip, thanks for dropping by. You definitely should connect with Jeff. He has lots of great leadership insights to share.

    • Jeff Suderman

      Thanks for the reply Skip. I have connected with you via LinkedIn. Please stay in touch.

  • D. Acree

    I think that this
    triad is confirmed in a few books if you look from a strategic point of view –
    Good to Great, Start with Why, QBQ, The Go Getter, The Legend of the Monk and
    the Merchant.

    Who a leader is –
    by far sits at the top. I have worked both in the private and government
    sectors. Leadership morals, values, and ethics set the tone. This is important
    to the What and Why you propose here. I would say that the middle triangle is
    the “How.” The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and I
    would state from experience that defining Who a leader is can take you to goals
    (what, why) in ways that are not legal, moral, and/or ethical.

    In this proposing
    of “how,” I would relate this to culture fit in a company. In my
    experience, I have worked with companies that seemingly know who a leader is –
    they have done the research, psychological profiling, contact references, etc,
    and they hire him/her. They all agree on “what” and “why,”
    and then in discovering the path of “how” the true leader is revealed.

    I like what you
    state here and would like to understand more. I am by no means an expert
    through education or experience. I only make observations from what I have seen
    work well, and what does not work well. I try solving the problem and seeing if
    there is a cause and effect.

    Thank you for
    sharing – DeWayne

    • D. Acree

      After thinking, I want to clarify the “how.” Examples that come to mind that I have seen for the “how” are retaliation, manipulation, fear, inspirational, creation, innovation, etc.

    • Jeff Suderman

      D. – I think ‘How’ is the equivalent of the cake that gets baked when the ingredients of Who/Why/What are combined. As such, I prefer to draw a circle around this triangle that represents both the How and When of leadership. While this is somewhat semantic, I think it is important as I like to use this model to ‘triangulate’ or assess different leadership theories. For example, a model like servant leadership would be positioned on the Who and Why side of the triangle (this also demonstrates a major drawback of servant leadership as a comprehensive leadership theory – it does not define what’ a leader does). Ergo, a balanced leadership theory would contain all three elements of the triad. Stated simply, how we lead is the culmination of our leadership triad beliefs and strengths.

      • D. Acree

        I agree that the semantics of this may be the same. Maybe from a theory point of view I can see this, but sometimes what I see is that companies hire leaders into strategic positions only figuring out the person’s leadership style (or true leadership style) after the “how.” An example would be a CEO is hired into a company that is doing okay but is under pressure to boost financial performance.
        He/She speaks to entire company about core beliefs, successes, style, etc, – highlighting people come first. Within a month, the layoffs start without rhyme or reason. No communication, and the workforce sees opportunities that have financial paybacks, but now they do not trust to say anything lest they lose their own jobs.
        People can be deceptive, and while we all look in the mirror and see a different person that everyone else, we must try to reconcile that. I have seen leadership changes, and the leaders is honest. He/she will state here is where we are, here is where we need to be. The company has to get there, and it may result in reducing headcount. Often this person will say – we are looking for ways not to do this, but it may be inevitable. The company leaders are here
        for questions, help, whatever we can do in the coming months. People are the most important assets.

        From a ground up look, the how of the leader gives off who, what, why. I think it’s all in point of view. Regardless your thinking is spot on with who/why/what.

        • Jeff Suderman

          This is a perfect example of the triad in action. I believe that most interview processes are focused on What a leader does and reviewing their track record of what their skills/accomplishments are. Ergo, this unbalanced interview process sometimes leaves companies surprised by the actions/decisions the newly hired leader makes. This gap can often be ascribed to a lack of understanding of the leader from the Who and/or Why corners of the triad.

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