Shadow of the leader

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"Shadow of the leader" is a phrase used to describe a common phenomenon in business organizations where those in positions of leadership and power, through their behavior and actions, tend to influence the behavior and actions of those below them, thus “casting a shadow” across the organization. “Shadow of the leader” usually refers to the situation where the CEO or president (or anyone else in a position of authority over others), through their likes, dislikes, treatment of subordinates, language and idioms, personal preferences, beliefs and values tends to shape the characteristics, culture and ways of doing business in the organization.

It is not so much that leaders force their style and values on others (although this is the case with dictators and bullies), but that employees tend to look upwards for clues as to what is important, how to get ahead in the organization, and how to fit in. It is a natural tendency for people with limited power within organizations to have an “affiliation need” and want to fit in. Those that don't match the culture or don’t get along with the boss's standards and expectations tend to get rejected or leave the firm, often saying; “I just didn’t fit in with their way of doing business!”.[citation needed]

The phenomenon of shadow of the leader is somewhat synonymous with such old phrases as: “A fish rots from the head first”, “A chip off the old block”, “The apple never falls far from the tree”, “You’re just like your father (or mother)”, and countless other phrases.

While the concept is based on common human behavior in groups and is probably timeless, it was first studied in business organizations and commented on in Larry Senn's doctoral dissertation published 1970. The study was the first systematic study of the concept of corporate culture and its central finding was that organizations become shadows of their leaders. It was popularized in leadership workshops and speeches in the mid-1970s when Larry Senn founded Senn-Delaney Leadership to work with top leaders and their teams to shape organizational culture. Its first usage in print was in the book In the Eye of the Storm: Re engineering Corporate Culture published by the Leadership Press in 1995 and written by John Childress and Larry Senn. It was covered more extensively in a 2006 book Winning Teams – Winning Cultures by Larry Senn and Jim Hart.


1. Larry E. Senn, Organizational Character as a Tool in the Analysis of Business Organizations, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1970

2. Larry E. Senn and John R. Childress, The Secret of a Winning Culture, Los Angeles, The Leadership Press, 1999

3. Larry E. Senn and Jim Hart, Winning Teams—Winning Cultures, Los Angeles, The Leadership Press, 2006

4. Larry E. Senn and Bernadette Senn, The Human Operating System: An Owner's Manual, Los Angeles, The Leadership Press, 1994–2009