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Leading Leaders

Joyce Bono and colleagues explain what makes for effective leadership

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Bad leadership is contagious. >>> Bad leaders spread dreariness through an office like a virus. They turn go-getters into shufflers and reduce teams to something less than the sum of their parts. Employees may show up for work, but their morale doesn’t. >>> Good leadership is infectious, too. Good leaders brighten the office with vision and optimism. They inspire people to work harder, enjoy their work, and achieve more. Their vision becomes self-fulfilling: they believe they can, so they do. Soon everybody else does, too.

What makes good leaders so effective? And why do bad ones continue to haunt our cubicles with the stubbornness and misery of the common cold? Enter Joyce Bono, the Marvin D. Dunnette Professor in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, who has spent her career decoding the behavioral DNA of leadership.

“It’s not that organizations don’t care about leadership," says Bono, director and principal investigator of the U’s Leadership Lab. “But everybody thinks they understand human behavior. So organizational psychol-ogists pose the question: If good leadership skills are common sense, how come everybody
doesn’t behave that way?"

In truth, great leadership isn’t so common. It’s a precious commodity, partly innate, partly learned. Bono and her colleagues in the Department of Psychology are showing that it has a direct impact on organizational performance and the bottom line. It’s an asset that organizations ignore at their peril.

Joyce Bono

Personal journey


Long before Bono explored leadership in her research, she understood it in her gut. In her first career, she rose through the ranks of a health care company and became a vice president at age 29 — and hated it. “I got trained in this traditional male model that people are human resources — objects with which you accomplish your goals,
the same as a copy machine," she recalls. Disillusioned, Bono quit and took career tests, which revealed the ideal job category for her personality: management of an entrepreneurial organization. But that was the very kind of position she had come to loathe. So what was wrong?

The problem, she realized, was not the position; it was the prevailing management
culture.

Next time around, when Bono took a position with another health care company, she vowed to manage people her way. She clearly communicated goals, and she assumed that most people wanted to do a good job if given the chance and treated with respect. She was far happier, and the company performed beyond expectations.

When Bono later returned to graduate school, she discovered an intellectual framework that validated everything she’d discovered through trial and error. It was Transformational Leadership Theory, an idea put forward by James MacGregor Burns in the 1978 book Leadership and later expanded by other scholars.

Bono was a player in that expansion. She began her academic career exploring how transformational leadership encourages valuable behaviors such as hard work, performance, and citizenship. In the next phase of her research, she focused on leadership traits that prompted managers to engage in these behaviors. More recently, she has turned to the psychological processes that explain the connection between good leadership and better performance.

Today, Bono’s Leadership Lab is itself a leader, providing leadership assessments, training workshops, and employee surveys for businesses and nonprofits ranging from Boeing to Grandma’s Bakery to the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Healthy contagion

Leadership isn’t just do-goodism, Bono has found, but is a management strategy for enhancing effectiveness. “If you believe your employees’ performance matters to your bottom line, you care very much about leadership," says Bono. “It’s a no-brainer. Maybe you don’t care if your employees are happy and thriving, but your customers do, and your shareholders do."

Leaders are most effective, says Bono, when they have a vision, express optimism, show employees how their jobs contribute to a larger purpose, provide resources for success, and remain open to new ideas. Their employees tend to be happier — and so are customers.

“It’s like a cascading or waterfall effect," says Bono. “Managers who are more optimistic
and express more positive emotions put employees in better moods and make them more willing to work hard and help others. People call it mood contagion."

In one case, Bono and her colleagues hired an actor who delivered two versions of the exact same speech — one with enthusiasm and the other neutrally. Those who watched the enthusiastic speech reported better moods.

Unfortunately, even the best leadership can become too much of a good thing. Once, Bono armed 57 employees of a large health care organization with portable electronic devices and asked their bosses to beep them throughout the day to check in. Her data showed that merely dealing with their bosses dampened employees’ spirits.

Yet employees with good leaders bounced back. Even with setbacks, they experienced more positive emotions overall.

Born to lead

Bono’s research shows that some people more naturally practice leadership behaviors. They tend to be sociable, empathetic, aggressive, positive, achievement-oriented, and willingto listen to new ideas.

They also rate high on personal magnetism. In one study of six Twin Cities organizations, Bono found that the most influential managers were consistently sought out by employees, even those who did not report directly to them. Moreover, they created an aura of power; even their subordinates were perceived as influential.

Alas, organizations often ignore such “people skills" when selecting managers, promoting people simply because they’re good at a job like engineering, sales, or accounting. And employees often seek leadership positions even if they dislike managing people. “The only way to status and promotion in most organizations is to manage people," says Bono. “Most bad managers don’t want to manage people. They’re forced to do it to achieve money, power, or status."

Nurturing leadership

The good news is that leadership can be taught. Indeed, it must be, says Bono.

Savvy business leaders agree. “Leadership affects all parts of your business," says Michael Bailey (B.A. ’78, psychology), CEO of Jostens. “Not only decision making, but also your ability to attract and retain talent."

Bailey has cultivated leadership at all levels of his organization. Employees were surveyed to identify problem areas. And 100 senior managers completed a custom leadership curriculum. Finally, everyone — including senior management — undertook a series of actions to change the corporate culture. And that, says Bailey, yielded more effective executives, happier employees, and better performance.

“It’s funny," Bailey says with a chuckle. “People deal with the issues all the time but never stop to think of what’s underlying them. Every day, people come to work in our company or stay with us because they like the work environment that is, in large part, set by leadership. When you’re competing for a very finite and sometimes difficult-to-attract labor force, that’s significant."

The role of expectations

In his own research on the role of power in social interactions, Bono’s colleague Mark Snyder has found that styles of leadership “become self-fulfilling prophecies. Leaders who focus on employees’ weaknesses tend to bring out the negatives in people they supervise. Those who focus on strengths tend to bring out the positives. The larger message is that what you expect is what you get."

Indeed, optimism is one of the signature traits of effective leaders, says David P. Campbell (Ph.D. ’60), Hellervik/PDI Visiting Professor in Adult Career Development in the College of Education and Human Development. An international authority on leadership, Campbell is widely known as coauthor of the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory and several other psycho-logical assessment tools bearing his name.

At the Colorado campus of the Center for Creative Leadership, Campbell has coached the likes of computer magnate Michael Dell and retired general Norman Schwarzkopf.

Campbell’s research shows that people in more favored positions express more optimism. Is their brighter outlook a result of better pay, nicer offices, and a parking spot right outside the door? Or is optimism the cause of their success? Campbell’s verdict: probably both.

Either way, the fact is that optimists create their own good fortune. They maintain a bright outlook and thus persist more. Progress often follows.

When optimism spreads to the entire team, magic happens. And you don’t need a survey to spot them as winners. “You can walk in and have morning coffee and detect it," says Campbell.

Seeing is believing

So why aren’t we all practicing such leadership techniques? Alas, says Bono, even organizations that claim to value leadership sometimes take the fundamentals for granted. When the discussion turns to abstract matters like vision and values, she says, “their eyes glaze over."

“But when I walk into a room full of managers and tell them, ‘Your employees were less happy, less optimistic, and less enthusiastic
when they were interacting with you, their boss,’ that usually gets their attention," she says. “It’s a wake-up call."