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The Leadership Triangle: It’s Not Only About The Leader


By Art Padilla & Laura Gail Lunsford

In order to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the leadership process, we must steer away from leader-centric analysis, towards a more holistic, contextual approach. Leadership behaviour is continually influenced by political and group dynamic and we must therefore not underestimate the role of followers and environments when it comes to measuring the success of our leaders.

The “Keep Rudy” movement
Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani was mayor of New York City from January 1, 1994, to December 31, 2001. Before serving as mayor, he was a U.S. Attorney and prosecuted well-publicized trials against the Mafia heads of New York’s “Five Families” and Wall Street insider traders Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. As mayor he was credited with reducing crime and improving tourist areas around Times Square. But during much of Giuliani’s tenure as mayor, and especially during a contentious campaign for U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton, the Democrats and the liberal media did not hold him in high esteem.1

Then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, ensued. Suddenly, a “new” Mayor Giuliani emerged, empathetic and inspirational. The mayor was everywhere: at the site of the former World Trade towers, encouraging the firemen and other rescuers, on television and radio, at funerals for victims of the tragedy consoling relatives. Public opinion, particularly among the liberal media, changed dramatically. Giuliani was now governing with effectiveness and compassion. Major recognitions were forthcoming: for his work during and after September 11, Giuliani was given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth and Time Magazine named him “Person of the Year” for 2001.2

The September 11 attacks occurred on the precise day of the mayoral primaries to select the Democratic and Republican candidates to succeed Giuliani. Believing his leadership was indispensable during a time of crisis, Giuliani lobbied for an unprecedented emergency extension of his term in office. A vigorous “Keep Rudy” campaign developed. In effect, by threatening to remain in office longer than the law allowed, Giuliani was pushing to become the “dictator” of New York City. In the end the political and civic institutions of New York prevailed. The media opposed any change to established succession rules. Leaders in the New York State Assembly vigorously opposed any extension to Giuliani’s term of office. The election proceeded as scheduled, and the winning candidate, Michael Bloomberg, took office on January 1, 2002, in accordance to the rule of law, as the 108th mayor of the city.

The leadership triangle
The events surrounding New York City’s mayoral campaign serve to illustrate the role of followers and environments in leadership processes. Yet, because we tend to regard leadership as something leaders do, much of the popular and academic literature is leader-centric. Leaders need help to accomplish group objectives. Few leadership episodes are entirely explained by the actions of a single individual. Leader-centrism reflects human fascination with leaders and celebrities and with our inclination to look to the top of organisations for solutions and answers. We put leaders on pedestals and frequently give them too much credit for their group’s achievements. And we often blame them for things that are not entirely their fault. More importantly, most studies neglect the other two sides of the leadership triangle: the followers and the environments.

In the sections below, we briefly examine the notion of leader-centrism, we discuss the importance of followers and environments, and we illustrate the leadership “triangle” concept (leaders, followers, and environments) by discussing and presenting examples from both toxic leadership and public leadership.

On definitions and leader -centrism
The issue of definition is central to leadership research writ large. For example, the literature is all over the place in terms of how leadership success is defined. Is it about the traits and qualities of leaders or is leadership success defined by the process followed or by the eventual outcomes of the organisation?

In determining whether the strategy of a company is successful or not, business school students in strategy classes are taught to focus on outcomes, on the bottom line. They ask one question first: how is the company performing relative to its chief rivals? Put differently, is the company making money or not? If we were evaluating the performance of an organisation in comparison to its rivals, we’d never look at just the qualities of the leader. Ultimately we’d consider the bottom line as the measure of whether the business strategy is working or not.

What is the bottom line for a leadership episode and who is responsible for it? This is a knotty question in most situations. Yet, we tend to view leadership episodes in simplistic absolutes and extremes. First, very few leadership outcomes are solely attributable to one individual. Second, the outcomes of leadership episodes are not generally at one end of a range of possibilities or at the other; most outcomes fall somewhere in between absolutely terrible and absolutely great. And third, there can be huge differences of opinion about a given leadership episode: the assessment about the outcomes by partisans and sympathisers can vary dramatically from that of critics and rivals.

To categorise organisational outcomes as absolutely destructive or entirely constructive or to suggest that an unethical or over-ambitious manager affects all subordinates equally is simplistic and perhaps naive. Even for leadership episodes where many people agree about the outcomes, there are many who will take the opposite view. How many delegates at the U.S. Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the summer of 2012 thought George W. Bush did a good job? And how many Republicans at their convention in Tampa, Florida, liked the job Barack Hussein Obama was doing? Jeff Imelt, who replaced Jack Welch as CEO of General Electric, was criticised for not achieving the financial success of his predecessor. Pointing to the buoyant dot-com economy of the 1990s, Imelt responded by suggesting that a dog could have achieved Welch’s results.3

Despite the obvious fact that leaders need followers to reach group goals, much of the previous work on leadership is leader-centric. Leader traits, behaviours, and perceived effectiveness as evaluated by subordinates or supervisors are emphasised.4 With few exceptions, followers are treated as an afterthought, typically viewed as recipients or mediators of the leader’s influence, and as the agents for achievement of the leader’s vision and objectives. Relatively few studies consider group outcomes or performance in determining the effectiveness of the leadership process: a survey of published studies shows that only about 15% have examined the relationship between leaders and organisational outcomes.4

To complain about the over-emphasis on leader traits and behaviours is not to deny the obvious importance of leaders. It is rather to underscore that leadership involves a triangle composed of the leader, the followers, and the environment. In this sense, leadership is a resource for group performance within the environmental conditions where the organisation operates.

In the context of potentially toxic leadership situations, leader-centric approaches do not explain why followers, board members, and other types of checks and balances permit destructive leader behaviours such as abusive acts directed to followers or behaviours detrimental to the organisation.5 Studies focusing on leaders do not generally address why some organisations retain bad leaders and some do not. They do not examine political and group dynamics that contribute to the ascendance of flawed leaders in managerial hierarchies or why individuals who repeatedly display inappropriate behaviours remain long enough to undermine an organisation’s tasks and resources.

In addition, not all followers react the same way to a given behaviour of leaders such as supervisor aggression, petty tyranny, or supervisor undermining.6 It is not obvious what fraction of followers have to be affected by abusive leaders before organisational “destruction” ensues. And since the effects of negative leader behaviours on followers are typically documented through self-reported surveys of followers, it is not clear whether follower self-esteem or depression issues, for example, preceded or followed the “bad” leader behaviours. Finally, in a variant of “let’s blame the victim,” dysfunctional and disengaged followers could cause leaders to become dysfunctional themselves, causing them in effect to give up and to display  “destructive” leader behaviours as a response. In sum, leader-centrism does not address the role of followers or environmental contexts and organisational conditions.

“Despite the obvious fact that leaders need followers to reach group goals, much of the previous work on leadership is leader-centric.”

On followers and environments
Shakespeare’s Henry V knew about “management by walking around” long before Tom Peters and Bob Waterman popularised the concept. King Henry disguised himself as a commoner and walked among his troops the evening before the decisive battle at Agincourt. The king learned many soldiers admired him, but others questioned whether his cause was morally justified. The next morning, on Saint Crispin’s day, Henry gave his famously stirring speech and the English proceeded to defeat the French. King Henry understood his followers well. He knew what mattered to his soldiers and he was skilful in motivating them to go against great odds to achieve success.

Shakespeare’s Henry V is a brilliant, if exaggerated, work of historical fiction. But it illustrates eloquently that leaders need followers who are committed to the goals of the group. This is true even for very powerful and capable leaders such as King Henry. Given the importance of followers to the leadership process and to group outcomes, it is surprising that this fascinating dance between leaders and followers has not commanded more attention.

The dramatic turnaround of the Nissan Motor Company highlights the leader-follower dynamic. Carlos Ghosn took over Nissan as the Japanese automaker neared bankruptcy.7 Ghosn, a Brazilian born, French citizen of Lebanese ancestry, navigated a Japanese business culture that resisted layoffs and respected seniority and tradition. In transforming Nissan, Ghosn kept things simple in a society that was not his and used basic language with clear plans. He maintained a focus on the importance of returning Nissan profitability through persistent attention to productivity, economy, and innovation. He cut over 20,000 jobs, closed plants, and sold off redundant units. The unrelenting emphasis was on saving Nissan by reducing the workforce while retaining productive employees. He was intensely criticized by the Japanese press for making unprecedented changes in a culture deeply entrenched in tenure and paternalism. But within a year after his arrival the company was profitable and Ghosn had changed the official language of Nissan from Japanese to English.

Contexts and environments of leadership events, the third side of the leadership triangle, also have not received the proper level of attention. It is within these defining environments that the reciprocal process of leading and following takes place. While the phrase is somewhat polemical, “organisational environments” include the contexts, settings, circumstances, and conditions within which the process of leadership and followership takes place. These environments contain three major elements:

  • Institutional, including external and internal checks and balances (e.g. boards of directors, legal systems, media, government agencies and regulators)
  • Environmental, including economic, social, and technological conditions
  • Cultural, including attitudes, experiences, and beliefs

Rather than just focusing on the personalities of leaders, it is also important to consider the environments and checks and balances and industry conditions surrounding leaders and followers. We know managerial discretion of leaders (i.e. the ability to operate with freedom, flexibility, and little supervision or oversight) is greater when there are weak or ineffective institutions or checks and balances. Regulators are much-maligned individuals, both by liberals and conservatives. What regulators actually do is to put barbed wire around smaller and smaller corrals. They are one of the “checks” to managerial discretion. On the other hand, what the “smart” guys at Enron and similar firms do is to try to influence the regulators and to lobby the legislators in order to expand their corrals and keep the barbed wire down to a minimum.  This lobbying of authority was one of Enron’s main talents. This is Wall Street’s talent, too. They infiltrate and control the very agencies that are supposed to regulate their industries. Is it surprising that Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, the architect of the Wall Street bailout, was previously the Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs? Is it surprising that firms doing business with the Pentagon routinely hire retired generals as consultants or that international banks pay handsomely to hire former bank regulators?

Checks and balances are important breaks in many potentially toxic leadership situations. Of course, too many checks and controls can contribute to inefficiencies and gridlock. An absence of common sense can lead to stalemates, as we have recently witnessed in the U.S. and in other countries such as India. However, the evidence seems fully to support the notion that organisations and nations with healthy checks and balances do better than those without them.8 Cheating and wrongdoing oftentimes are crimes of opportunity. It is wise to limit those opportunities. The vibrancy and transparency of organisational environments and the independence and empowerment levels of followers constrain opportunities for wrongdoing.

An illustration using public leadership
The case of public leadership serves to illuminate the role of followers of context and of environments in the leadership process. There are universal themes in leading and following, of course, such as the evolutionary proclivity to lead and follow, importance of communication and listening, motivation, perseverance, effective time management, physical endurance or stamina, and organisational sense-making that transcend time and situation. But it is also true that organisational environments affect the leading and following process in fundamental ways.

Public leadership is a type of leadership associated with specific sorts of organisations and it is found in two broad types of “public” or non-private organisations: 1) Non-profit agencies and institutions, such as universities, charities, and foundations (about 9 million people in the U.S. are employed in these organisations); and 2) public organisations, entities created, funded, and regulated by public sector (about 30 million people in the U.S. are employed in the federal, state, or local government sectors).9

Public leadership is more than just leading a public organisation.10 It entails dealing with interconnected social problems among many different stakeholders (i.e. individuals and groups with a significant stake in the outcomes and decisions of an organisation) within a context of limited or shared power. Leadership is “distributed” or shared because so many different people are legitimately involved in a central way. Such sharing of leadership would not be an issue, for example, in a privately held business. Consider this example: a proposal by city officials in a moderately large U.S. city to build a major, new facility to house police and fire personnel.

Such a multi-million dollar initiative would involve discussions among an ensemble of politically diverse elected and appointed officials. Four major actors or groups might be especially relevant: city council members, liberals and conservatives; the mayor; the city manager and his or her staff; and the local newspaper. Note that there’s not a clear, obvious leader in this example.

First, conservative city council members, elected after campaign promises of lower taxes, oppose a larger government with higher taxes. Second, liberal city council members might favour the facility, and might see it as an opportunity to name it in honour of a previous city official known as an advocate for social justice. Third, the mayor has political motives, such as her legacy as mayor. Next, the city manager, appointed (not elected) to that position by a divided city council and serving at the will of the council, is concerned about population growth, rising crime, and the obsolescence of existing facilities. Three challenges face the city manager: the frequent re-election of city council members; the mayor’s agenda; and the needs of the city. The manager has a large staff with its own concerns: the police chief wants a modern facility while the fire chief has ideas about the facility’s design. Finally, the local newspaper, which has public access to all discussions, is faced with declining readership and it is very interested in the controversy the proposed building generates.

The previous example, brief and simple as it is, highlights six important aspects of the contexts and environments of public leadership:

  1. Multiple constraints that limit leader power and autonomy, making public organisations slow in addressing new issues. (An exception exists during major crises, when power and autonomy of leaders tend to rise temporarily to deal with rapidly changing or threatening situations).
  2. Sources of funding and absence of a profit motive: funding sources, such as donors or taxpayers, are sometimes different from the users of the service; absence of a profit motive makes fiscal discipline a challenge.
  3. Short time horizons of public organisations, typically from election to election, make long-term planning difficult.
  4. “Publicness” of public entities: mistakes and controversies are quickly exposed due to public records laws, leading to legalistic and cautious environments when organisational quickness and agility might be needed.
  5. Proper role of public leaders in a democratic system: Bureaucratic rigidity inhibits responsive government, but too much “wheeling and dealing” and entrepreneurial behaviour by public leaders entrusted with the power and authority of the state is problematic.
  6. Complicated organisational tango between public leaders appointed to their jobs and political leaders elected to theirs.

“In order for organisations to be transparent and provide effective checks and balances, the leaders have to give up some of their power, managerial discretion, and autonomy.”

Closing thought
It is useful to make a final comment about an ironic paradox: in order for organisations to be transparent and provide effective checks and balances and in order to have empowered and independent followers, the leaders have to give up some of their power, managerial discretion, and autonomy. At one extreme, one has an organisational version of “CEOs Gone Wild,” with tone-deaf leaders doing what they please, while at the other there are empowered stakeholders, followers, and institutions looking over the CEO’s shoulder. This issue illustrates our main point. We might improve how we select leaders and engage in leadership if we understand that leadership is a resource for group performance, a reciprocal process involving a leader, followers, and an organisational or group environment context.

About the Authors
Dr. Art Padilla
teaches in the Eller College of Management, University of Arizona, in Tucson; previously he worked at the University of North Carolina and at NC State University. He is a popular teacher and writer about leadership and also served in senior administrative roles for the University of North Carolina 16-campus system and at NC State University. His research is on leadership and he has authored articles, chapters and books on the topic, including the recently published textbook, Leadership: Leaders, followers, and environments, published by Wiley (2013), on which this article is partly based.

Dr. Laura Gail Lunsford
is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, where she teaches organisational psychology, leadership, and social change. Her research focuses on the psychology of mentoring and its relation to talent development. Lunsford served as an administrator in the first residential high school for gifted students in the United States; as alumni director at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; and as founding director of one of America’s elite, undergraduate scholarship programs. Lunsford’s published work focuses on mentor behaviours and dysfunction. She received the 2007 International Mentoring Association Dissertation Award and was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study mentoring in science in Australia.

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2. Rudolph Giuliani: America’s mayor. The Economist. July 28, 2005. Retrieved from:
3. Padilla, A. Leadership: Leaders, followers, environments. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons.
4. Kaiser, R. B., Hogan, R., & Craig, S. B. (2008). Leadership and the fate of organizations. American Psychologist, 63(2), 96.
5. Schilling, J. (2009). From ineffectiveness to destruction: A qualitative study on the meaning of negative leadership. Leadership, 5(1), 102-128.
6. Avolio, B. J. (2007). Promoting more integrative strategies for leadership theory-building. American Psychologist, 62(1), 25; Kark, R., & Van Dijk, D. (2007). Motivation to lead, motivation to follow: The role of the self-regulatory focus in leadership processes. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 500-528; Schat, A. C. H., Desmarais, S., & Kelloway, E. K. (2006). Exposure to workplace aggression from multiple sources: Validation of a measure and test of a model. Unpublished manuscript, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada; Duffy, M. K., Ganster, D. C., & Pagon, M. (2002). Social undermining in the workplace. Academy of management Journal, 45(2), 331-351.
7. Ghosn, C. (2007). Shift: Inside Nissan’s historic revival. Crown Business.
8. Fukuyama, F. (2011). The origins of political order: From prehuman times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Girox.
9. Current Population Survey (2007). Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from:
10. Van Wart, M. (2003). Public-sector leadership theory: An assessment. Public Administration Review, 63, 214-228; Crosby, B. & Bryson, J. (2010). Integrative leadership and the creation and maintenance of cross-sector collaborations. Leadership Quarterly, 21, 211-230.

2 Responses »

  1. This is an outstanding analysis of the dynamism of business leadership. I am not sure if using a political model -the example of Ruby Giuliani- to make a point about a business model is appropriate. Yet, there are sufficient analogies between the two to support the post’s argument that leadership should be seen in the context of a confluence of other forces. We should not forget the fact that Mayor Bloomberg waged an expensive and aggressive campaign to extend terms limits so that he could remain in office. He succeeded where Giuliani failed. Clearly Mayor Bloomberg did not subscribe to the leadership triangle theory while steward of NYC. The political theory of “checks and balances” is a workable analogy that can be easily understood. Successful corporate leaders must be astute managers while understanding the politics impacting their positions. It is true that there is much more to effective business leadership than making money. I agree that the use of the leader-centric analysis distorts the true leadership process.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Bloomberg’s three terms in office. It works well here, especially since one of these politicians is also an accomplished businessman.

    Guiliani’s “Keep Rudy” campaign was in fact well funded and orchestrated, as was Bloomberg’s. Guiliani sought an emergency, extraordinary extension to the mayor’s second term at the last minute, a renewable, 3-month deal, with very little public discussion. Utilizing the September 11 crisis as justification, the proposal went outside established, democratic processes and did not involve the voters. Indeed, Giuliani included a threat to the other candidates that he would (somehow) seek another term if they didn’t agree to his demands.

    Bloomberg also used a crisis: He contended that his financial expertise was needed given the Wall Street collapse. However, his was not an “eleventh-hour” deal. Bloomberg first had to convince a majority of the elected City Council members to make a change so he could run a third term. Then, following a significant public discussion, and a highly divided vote (29 yeas to 22 no’s) of the Council, the voters of New York had the final say. They voted to re-elect Bloomberg at the regularly scheduled election. (By the way, a recent New York Times poll shows that New Yorkers are having second thoughts about Bloomberg’s third term and support going back to a maximum of two terms). I suggest these two events were fairly different, one was democratically-based and the other not so much.

    Destructive and constructive leaders of all types take advantage of crises to consolidate or strengthen their power. Whether politicians or business people, all of them attempt to change the rules of the game, their environments. That’s what Enron executives did so well when they argued to de-regulate the energy industry. The car manufacturers constantly lobby politicians to change emission and gas mileage regulations. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez changed democratic traditions and laws in highly questionable ways to remain in office. Here’s the larger point, I think: To examine leadership as a function of the behaviors of one person (the leader) or to paint leadership episodes as “black” or “white” misses most of these distinctions and results in an incomplete understanding of the leadership process writ large.

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