Trickle-Down Leadership

January 26, 2016 4:18 pm


There’s nothing like 30 inches of snow to bring out the best in people. Or the worst. Or perhaps a little of both. Here in Northern Virginia, we’re on day five of cabin fever, caught in a wonderland of chilly moisture that simply didn’t have the consideration to come in evenly-distributed bits spread over many weekends of fantastic skiing and chili dinners.

On the less-frozen side, I’ve had a chance to catch up on lots of reading and have recently discovered a thought-provoking article published in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Trickle-Down Effect of Good (and Bad) Leadership” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. (Call me a geek. I could blissfully lose myself in the HBR site.) In short, Zenger and Folkman studied qualities of leadership and hypothesize that sound leaders are led by sound leaders, or “if you’re a good boss, you probably work for a good boss.”

I love this theory. There is so much to consider. If you have overweight friends, you are more likely to be overweight. If your best friend is divorced, you are 33% more likely to be divorced. If you have happily married friends, you are more likely to be happily married. (Okay, I made up that last one, but I hope that it’s true.) These are studies cited by the Zenger/Folkman article. No matter the realm of observation, we are all affected by the company we keep.

This probably brings to mind images of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute – the flattering subordinate attempting to emulate the behavior of the bungling boss. Fortunately in the world of sitcoms, there comes an end to each episode and comic relief to awkward situations. In the real world, however, the Dwight Schrutes are frequently unaware of the damage that they do.

In all of this there is some sense of responsibility we leaders need to assume. We need to perhaps be Jim Halperts and observe the strengths and weaknesses of those to whom we report and observe how we are being affected. We need to see how we are passing along those behavior traits to those we supervise as well. Let us hope that we pass along the qualities of a “good boss” and find ways to mitigate or adjust the qualities of a cranky boss.

I recommend this as reading for everyone – snowed-in or not.

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