- Link to the scientific article: D. Ceccobelli & L. Di Gregorio (2022) The Triangle of Leadership. Authenticity, Competence and Ordinariness in Political Marketing, Journal of Political Marketing, 21:2, 113-125, DOI: 10.1080/15377857.2022.2060644.
We live in an era characterized by the "leader factor". The extent and specific ways in which this factor imposes itself within a political community vary according to the political system of reference, but it is now difficult to deny that individual political actors are increasingly able to determine the outcomes and balances of entire political communities, at different levels of government. However, we do not clearly know what are the key variables that explain the emergence of successful political leadership. What we are experiencing is, moreover, a historical phase in which maintaining leadership status over time is increasingly difficult. There is often a process of "cannibalization of leadership", with sudden replacements of leaders who have sometimes remained such for a very short time. In our theoretical analysis , we set out to identify these key variables by means of a holistic approach. The “political leadership triangle” is the outcome of this analysis.
The model: ordinary, competent and authentic
According to the leadership triangle model, successful leadership status is achieved when a political actor succeeds in the arduous endeavor of being perceived as simultaneously an ordinary actor ("someone like me"), competent ("someone better than me"), and authentic ("someone who can be trusted"). The yellow star in Figure 1 at the AOC coordinates represents the situation of co-occurrence and at the same time balance among the three components forming the leadership triangle.
Why it is useful: from national to local
The leadership triangle exhibits various properties. It adapts to the changes – of context and otherwise – that characterize the life of a government or political system. Consider, for example, what happens with the onset of a pandemic. In such a case, it is not only unnecessary but even penalizing for the political actor to be perceived as an ordinary leader ("someone like me"). As evidenced by the red star in Fig.1, the ideal point for being a leader in this context is AC, that is, when the co-occurrence of the perception of being an authentic and competent, but not at all ordinary, leader occurs. In other words, changes in context change the "magic formula" by which an individual actor rises to the status of a successful leader, and the leadership triangle suggests in which direction. Here, for example, is the explanation for the rise of a leading figure such as Mario Draghi at the time of Covid-19 (or that of Mario Monti concaused by the outbreak of the 2007 economic crisis), as well as the radical collapse of a political actor such as Matteo Salvini, scarcely perceived as an ideal political actor to lead the country at a time of severe systemic crisis.
But the utility of this model extends beyond merely analyzing and comprehending successful (or unsuccessful, as in the case of Donald Trump, as we elucidate in our scholarly article) national leadership. It also applies at the 'local' level. Take, for instance, the current mayor of Milan, Giuseppe “Beppe” Sala, who may epitomize an 'ideal' manifestation of the leadership triangle.
Two successful administrators
Beppe Sala, both before and after the Covid emergency, is perceived as a competent leader - a successful manager who, in the eyes of Milanese citizens, consistently embodies the city's efficient spirit with professionalism and hard work. However, he is also seen as an ordinary leader. On his social media profiles, for example, he often shares moments of daily life that reflect his passions and amusements, embracing continuous interaction with Milan's pop culture and beyond (consider content featuring celebrities from the worlds of fashion, sports, and music, or images portraying his quintessential 'Milaneseness,' enjoying an aperitivo in the city center). Most importantly, he is perceived as authentic, someone trustworthy: not driven by cynical political calculations aimed at personal power climbing on a national level, but genuinely interested in working to improve the lives of Milanese citizens.
At the same time, however, Mayor Sala 'during Covid' is a leader who has completely and immediately excluded any reference or connection to his more popular dimension as a leader entirely at ease in Milan, the homeland of communication, business, and entertainment, to instead convey the image of a leader with his mind fully committed – 24 hours a day – to guiding his citizens through a health emergency. Even just a quick glance at his Instagram profile, before, during, and after Covid, conveys his ability to adapt to the ongoing changes.
Even a rapid glance at his Instagram profile before, during, and after Covid conveys this ability to adapt to the changes taking place.
Adaptability is a trait also evident in other cases at the non-national level. Consider the ability to gain (and then maintain) political power by a "regional" leader such as Luca Zaia: president of the Veneto region since 2010, then re-elected for the third time in 2020 with more than 75 percent of the votes. Zaia – considered through the theoretical lens of the leadership triangle – is also a leader who is able, over time, to keep intact his ability to be perceived by the citizens of Veneto as a figure at once competent, authentic and ordinary, with the same ability as Sala to adapt to the changes imposed by the pandemic.
The leadership triangle thus makes it possible to analyze and compare different types of "leaders" from multiple perspectives, from diachronic to multilevel. It makes it possible to examine and compare not only national political leaders – such as presidents and party leaders – but also mayors, regional presidents, or others. At the same time, this model facilitates the comparison of leaders from different historical eras, thus enabling full understanding of how the traits underlying successful political leadership have varied (or conversely remained unchanged) over time.
From academia to professional politicians, to influencers
The leadership triangle is not just a new theoretical tool to help the academic community understand why some leaderships emerge and others fail. It is an aid for leaders themselves, aspiring leaders and their employees, for example, to understand how best to capitalize on their communication efforts. It can also be used to understand who might be the best potential leader within a given political organization (be it a political party, a labor union, or a nascent social movement). Thus, the leadership triangle provides an example of bridging the gap between academia and the world of political professionals, embracing the need to relate these two worlds as closely as possible in the perspective of the third mission.
Ultimately, although the leadership triangle was designed to be applied in the political arena, this theoretical model can be extended to other areas: pedagogy or influencer marketing for example (i.e., when it comes to the ability to "influence, to generate strategic word-of-mouth –usually via social media – that significantly affects a brand's visibility").
Chiara Ferragni: Italy's leading influencer
Consider for example the case of Chiara Ferragni, Italy's most famous and followed influencer, also an opinion leader with whom we can easily associate the co-occurrence of the perceptions of ordinariness, competence, and authenticity. In fact, on analyzing the Chiara Ferragni case, it emerges that her success also stems from her being perceived as "one of us," a mother like any other who, through her digital communication, shares moments of daily life, joys and difficulties of being a mother and a woman today, especially in reconciling personal and professional life. But Chiara Ferragni in the common perception is also a competent woman, a highly successful entrepreneur able to create a media and economic empire "out of nothing", so much so, for example, that she is on the boards of directors of very large and very important international companies. At the same time, she is a woman and entrepreneur perceived as authentic because of her struggles on issues such as women's empowerment, blood donation, or urban safety. There is no doubt, however, that the recent investigations for aggravated fraud that are involving Chiara Ferragni herself have already had an effect on her hitherto de facto almost "infallible" ability to be perceived as "someone who can be trusted." If these investigations diminish this digital entrepreneur's ability to be perceived as a successful leader, it will be because they challenge her perceived authenticity.
In short, even in the case of influencers, the "magic formula" for transforming oneself from a simple social user into a successful influencer would seem to be the ability to be perceived as simultaneously competent, ordinary, and authentic. Cases like Chiara Ferragni's are obviously not isolated in the world of the influencer economy: the cook Benedetta Rossi with her homemade delicacies, the physicist and lecturer Vincenzo Schettini with "The Physics We Like", as well as Alessandro Barbero with his stories of history, are three personalities that express an ideal ability to reconcile and combine the traits of authenticity, ordinariness, and competence.
The leadership triangle is thus a theoretical framework and a heuristic tool with those features of interdisciplinarity so much needed in contemporary academia, which is still excessively characterized by the inability of different scientific-disciplinary fields to build opportunities for comparison, dialogue, scientific collaboration, and synergy.