Shadow of the Leader: The Remake.



One of the fundamental tenants of corporate culture is the principle of “shadow of the leader”.  In essence the behaviour of the leader and or leadership team casts a shadow over the entire organisation.  It is mostly understood by consultants of leadership and culture that the behaviour of the leaders is mimicked and magnified as you look down into the organisation.  Poor teamwork at the top tends to breed poor teamwork at all levels.

It’s not that leaders push their behavioural traits onto others so much as lower levels of managers tend to see the behaviour of their bosses as acceptable and what is required to get ahead. For example, the leader that focuses mainly on sales and financial numbers tends to see that same focus at all levels, often ignoring other drivers of business performance.

“Organisations are shadows of their leaders.  That’s the good news and the bad news!

But the principle of leadership shadows is not so simple.  Most consultants study leaders and the practice of leadership without really studying those who report to the leader or are one or two levels down.  For the past several months I have been studying the impact of leader behaviour on middle managers and the principle of shadow of the leader is much more complex, and interesting, than most consultants of corporate culture and leadership would have us believe.

bad boss cartoonFor example, let’s suppose we have a leader at the top of a large organisation that yells, pounds the table, swears at people in public, calls them weak and babies when they don’t meet their monthly or weekly figures, and threatens to fire them all.  This is the bosses normal behaviour when disappointed with business performance.

How do direct reports and next level managers respond? In most cases it is not a simple mirroring relationship.  Perhaps there would be a cascading set of behaviours if the actions of the leader were demonstrably positive, developmental and encouraging.  But I believe all middle and upper managers have an internal “professional moral compass” as to what is good and bad leadership behaviour.

When managers look up at leaders for guidance and direction, they are really looking at two aspects: the position and the person.

The Position: In most cases, middle and upper managers respect the position.  They respect the authority and responsibilities that come with a senior position. “I may not always agree, but she’s the boss so let’s see if we make it work!”  Respect for the position is often the element that keeps a company together and moving forward. Certainly in military situations where lives are at stake, respect for the position is vitally important. Senior officers have more knowledge and experience than junior officers and their position and authority are respected.

The Person:  The other aspect is respect for the person. And here is where the moral compass” and not the organisational compass” comes into play. When upper and middle managers respect the leader as a person, there is a willingness to try new things and a motivation based on that respect. On the other hand, when the leader is not respected as a person, usually due to multiple outbursts of bad behaviour, the motivation to “enthusiastically follow the leader’s suggestions or decisions” is lacking.

Respect for the position, but not for the person.

The resulting manager behaviour  is what I term compliance and blind obedience when what is really needed for business success is creative problems solving and fired up motivation to win.  For those faced with recurring bad behaviour from the boss, the daily motivation often becomes just to survive, not to win. To follow orders rather than innovate and improve. To do the minimum when the maximum is needed. To be “9 to 5” rather than engaged and alive.

Most middle managers don’t mirror or replicate the behaviours of a bad leader. Many try to overcompensate to protect their own staff.  Others just go through the motions with compliance and survival as their focus.

Next time you see a company with good products and a strong marketplace that is under-performing, look at the real day-to-day behaviour of the leader. Analysts would do well to understand the behaviour of the leader as much as they try to understand the business metrics or market dynamics when evaluating a company for investment purposes.

One of the best performance improvement quotes I have heard is,

“Change the leader or change the leader”!

It is my observation that when a new leader comes into an organisation and creates a dramatic improvement in business performance, its is more a result of better leadership behaviours than a bigger brain or new ideas.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, leadership, Organization Behavior, Personal Development, Self-improvement, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s