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.