Political Connections: The Missing Dimension in Leadership

Strong Networks Can Supplement Other Leadership Deficiencies

2010 Volume 13 Issue 1

Early leadership studies examined common traits of successful leaders. Later research focused on combinations of traits as no one profile was shared by all successful leaders. This research focuses on three key dimensions of leadership: charismatic leadership, instrumental leadership, and political connections. It suggests how they can become a scorecard to rate not only one’s chances for advancement, but also one’s bosses and one’s peers.

[powerpress: http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/winter2010/Article – Political – Chasteen.mp3]

Leadership is one of the most published areas of all business topics[1] because people recognize that it is a key ingredient for successful firms, non-profits, and even countries. Earlier leadership studies focused on leadership traits: What were successful leaders like, and could the duplication of these traits lead to success for other people?[2] However, the trait approach proved insufficient as no one set of traits could be found in all successful leaders.[3]

Later works focused on combinations of traits (2×2 matrices), such as emotional intelligence versus intellectual quotient[4] or charismatic leadership versus instrumental leadership.[5] These were an improvement over using a single dimension as a guidepost, but they still did not tell the complete story. Nevertheless, because 2×2 matrices are easy to present and to conceptualize, they have been featured in many leadership articles, even though they do not give the full picture of what it means to be a successful leader.[6]

A few authors have gone on to examine three or more dimensions, for example, emotional intelligence, intelligence quotient, and technical skills.[7] These can provide more information, but a final consensus has not been reached on what three dimensions are the most important to leadership or if additional dimensions should be considered. The classic Myers-Briggs classification, for example, uses four dimensions: extraversion or introversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving.[8] While more dimensions may be the best approach, more than three can be mentally and conceptually challenging—note that physics uses seven dimensions in a somewhat confusing attempt to explain our origins.[9]

This article focuses on three key dimensions of leadership: charismatic leadership, instrumental leadership, and political connections—”leadership cubed.” It can be considered an improvement over earlier studies that used just two dimensions, and it shows how these three dimensions can be used as a tool for self-assessment. The dimensions were chosen because they combine the attributes of leaders, managers, and networking.


Research has proven that being a charismatic leader is not enough to change an organization over the long term[10] as influence can wear off. Rather, instrumental leadership is needed to make lasting changes.

Instrumental leadership embodies the strengths of charismatic leadership—envisioning, energizing, and enabling—but overlays those assets with elements of behavior reinforcement through structuring, controlling, and rewarding to ensure support for the organization’s ultimate objectives. Structuring refers to building teams with the required competence and empowerment. Controlling refers to creating systems and processes to measure and monitor. Rewarding includes rewards and punishment. These three tasks are not as glamorous as those associated with charismatic leadership, but they represent the hard work required for lasting change.[11]

Charismatic and instrumental leadership can be redrawn as the traditional 2×2 matrix above, which is used in many management studies. Charismatic leadership is needed to generate the initial energy and to create commitment, while instrumental leadership ensures that people continue to act in a manner consistent with these new goals. Leaders can be examined to see where they fit in this 2×2 matrix.[12]

The Leadership Cube

But something is clearly missing from this 2×2 matrix; there are many examples of government and industry leaders who possessed charismatic and instrumental leadership but who failed to make lasting changes to organizations. For example, Colin Powell exhibited great charismatic and instrumental leadership traits, which served him exceptionally well during his early career, but his lack of political support hindered his accomplishments and legacy as U.S. Secretary of State.

Conversely, Condoleezza Rice did not have Colin Powell’s charismatic and instrumental leadership abilities, but her political connections led to longer-lasting accomplishments at the U.S. Department of State.[13] Perhaps a third dimension of political connections, a 2 x 2 x 2 cube, would better explain the lasting impact of successful leaders. In fact, General Electric has adopted such a leadership matrix to allow more variation in selected parameters for company decisions.[14]

Networking and Political Power

Most people have worked at companies where managers who lack technical and organizational skills make it to the top of an organization based on their friendships with those in power. Whether in politics or in organizations, having a connection to those in power can make or break a career. In fact, mentoring and networking are as important in modern organizations as having hard and soft skills. These attributes can be considered the legs of a stool on which to build one’s career.

Power is an omnipresent feature of organizational life. Some researchers consider power the most important factor in explaining how decisions are made in organizations.[15] To be successful in any organization, it is important to have connections to the top decision makers—unless you have the opportunity to demonstrate your skills, you will not advance. You must get noticed by people who can help you navigate the organizational maze, such as a mentor.

leadership 3x3The Leadership Vector

There is one problem that the traditional matrix and the leadership cube share: Traits are scored as either high or low (0 or 1) when, in reality, individuals may fall somewhere in the middle. Likewise, all three dimensions in the leadership cube can be high, low, or medium. Actually, the dimensions really vary anywhere between 0 and 1, such as 0.2, 0.4, 0.7, and so forth.

A better way to present a person’s leadership traits is as a vector within the leadership cube as shown above. The origin is at 0,0,0; high in all three dimensions is at 1,1,1.

Total Leadership Quotient

A person’s leadership quotient can be represented as a set of three numbers, each representing an axis, such as 1.0 for charismatic leadership, 0.5 for instrumental leadership, and 0.5 for political connections. This notation opens up the total inside the cube for a distinct placement of different people. This notation may be harder to draw or conceptualize, but it is a more accurate representation of reality as it allows for an almost infinite set of numbers to measure total leadership potential.

Tool for Self-Assessment

The following table illustrates a possible ranking for various individuals working in the same organization. It shows that the boss is high in charisma, medium in instrumental leadership, and medium in political connections. The two peers have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. Worker X is medium in the first two dimensions but needs to work on his political awareness. Such tables can give a heads-up as to where you stand with respect to others in the firm and as to what is required in order to move up in the company.

Leader Charismatic Instrumental Political Connections
Boss 1.0 0.5 0.5
Peer 1 0.4 0.2 0.2
Peer 2 0.1 0.6 0.4
Worker X 0.5 0.7 0.3

Every aspiring leader should try to determine his or her place within the cube and an honest and objective placement is necessary if this self-assessment is to have value. Aspiring leaders should also try to determine the location of their bosses and peers within this cube. Again, honesty and objectivity are necessary if this assessment is to have value. Once these placements are established, one can compare oneself to others in the company.


The leadership cube and its supporting ranking table illustrate:

  1. Traits that made previous leaders successful, and
  2. How individuals rank in these three critical dimensions.

In times of great change, charismatic leadership is necessary; but it is not enough to rely on charisma when effective institutional reorganization is required. This requires charismatic and instrumental leadership as well as political connections, especially as one moves into higher positions of authority.

Good political connections can overcome weaknesses in the other two dimensions, but a lack of political connections can diminish other well-honed leadership skills. This helps explain why some people without charismatic or instrumental leadership skills, but with political connections, still advance in many firms and government offices.

Obviously, fusing all three of these leadership strengths in a person would be optimum to meet the demands of our troubled economy. Unfortunately, a person with all of these attributes is not that common; usually, one is strong in a dimension or two, but not three. However, if you can recognize your standing inside the leadership cube and are aware of how you compare to others, you can strategize to correct those weaknesses. Knowing which goals are most important for oneself and for the organization are the first steps to career advancement.

[1] Tom Peters and Nancy Austin, A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference, (New York: Random House, 1985).

[2] Afsaneh Nahavandi, The Art and Science of Leadership, (3rd. ed.), (New York: Prentice Hall, 2003).

[3] S. Kirkpatrick and E. Locke, “Leadership: Do Traits Matter?” Academy of Management Executive, no. 5 (1991): 48–60.

[4] James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1978).

[5] David A. Nadler and Michael L. Tushman, “Beyond the Charismatic Leader: Leadership and Organizational Change,” in The Leader’s Companion: Insights on Leadership Through the Ages, ed. J. Thomas Wren, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

[6] Nahavandi.

[7] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, (10th Anniversary Edition), (New York: Bantam Books, 2005).

[8] Sandra Krebs Hirsh and Jean M. Kummerow, Introduction to Type in Organizations, (3rd. ed.), (Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1998).

[9] Terence Witt, Our Undiscovered Universe: Introducing Null Physics, the Science of Uniform and Unconditional Reality, (Indialantic, Florida: Aridian Publishing Corporation, 2007)

[10] Nadler and Tushman.

[11] David Keirsey, Leadership, Temperament, and Talent, (California: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1998).

[12] Gary Yukl, Leadership in Organizations, (7th. ed.), (New York: Prentice Hall, 2010).

[13] Larry Chasteen, “The Leadership Cube: Examples in the US Government,” Journal of Practical Leadership, 4, no. 1 (2009): 86–94.

[14] Gregory G. Dess, G.T. (Tom) Lumpkin, Alan Eisner, Strategic Management: Creating Competitive Advantages, (New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2008). (hyperlink no longer accessible).

[15] Peters and Austin.

About the Author(s)

Larry Chasteen, PhD, is an assistant professor of management in the College of Business at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. He holds a doctorate from the University of Texas at Dallas. His research interests are in the areas of strategy, leadership, and innovation. Before he began his academic career, he spent 20 years as a project manager at Texas Instruments and Raytheon. In 2008, he was selected as a Foster Fellow and spent one year as Science Advisor at the U.S. Department of State. This tour in Washington reinforced his interest in the importance of political connections for future leaders.


Keith Chia

March 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Hi Prof Larry,

I am a post graduated student from Northern University of Malaysia.
I’m planning to further my PHD and my scope of research will be on leadership in public administration. I am thinking of using political connection as the moderator/mediator variable. Can you please advise me on the “measurement” for political connection.

Thank you,