A recent Forbes article on leadership (December 5, 2013 – click here for full article) suggests that bad leadership begets bad leadership in those people who are direct reports to that affected leader.
The good news was that great (positive) leadership tends to be modeled by subordinates, too.
Think about it. If you are subject to a horrible boss with bad communication skills, punitive tactics and a demanding, authoritarian style, wouldn’t you eventually get tired of trying to motivate and lead your own team in a good way and start to become more like your boss (just being pragmatic about the situation?)
The study team asked this central question; “Do people who work for terrible leaders turn out to be terrible leaders themselves?”
The article mentions the following context:
In past Zenger Folkman research we’ve demonstrated that a great leader can have powerfully positive effects on an organization: decreasing turnover of team members and greatly increasing customer satisfaction, profitability, employee engagement, sales revenue, and even workplace safety—-virtually every business outcome that’s measurable. In those studies, we’ve looked primarily at the relationship between individual leaders and their immediate direct reports.
When we ask individuals about how their bosses influence their own leadership styles, they often respond “Oh, I’m my own person. I don’t let that change how I manage.” Whether working for a great boss or a nightmare leader, they feel they are in control of themselves and their immediate situation. If there’s a bad boss above them, they serve as a buffer.
Next, we analyzed three levels of 360 evaluations of leadership effectiveness by correlating the scores of executives and their direct reports, with those of team members directly below the leaders they work for. We found that while we do see some leaders performing substantially better than their bosses, far more often we see influences, good and bad, cascading all the way down the line.
For this study we matched up data from 6,094 leaders (whom we will arbitrarily label “alpha leaders”), with their direct reports who were also leaders (whom we’ll call “beta leaders”).
What, exactly did they discover?
First off, examining the best (top 10%) and worst (bottom 10%) of the alpha leaders (as assessed by the beta leaders who work for them) we were able see a substantial difference in the engagement levels of the beta leaders (as assessed by their direct reports). Not surprisingly, beta leaders who worked for the worst alpha leaders apparently suffered from that relationship. Their engagement scores were abysmal, averaging in the 24th percentile. Meanwhile, the average engagement level of the betas (who worked for the best alphas) was at the robust 82nd percentile. This mirrors our global study of these same variables with over 30,000 leaders.
So the real question becomes how did the Beta Leaders do with their third level direct reports? Several key findings were documented.
First, the influence of a “bad leader” at the top generally does filter down the chain (so “bad leadership does seem to be “contagious”), but not as predictably or universally as we might have expected.
The middle level leaders can create a “buffer zone” between the monster at the top and the loyal subordinates at the bottom; however, it takes a lot of extra energy to serve as that buffer – energy that could be more productively employed on projects instead of being a shield.
Finally, the authors observe that the cycle of “bad leadership” can be broken, but organizations would do well to invest in keeping their top-most leaders “on track” to being the “best leaders” possible (and having the “good” trickledown effect instead of creating time/energy sapping buffers.)
How about your organization?
If your troop has started trending towards pessimism or poor communication, boys “acting out” or boys skipping meetings who used to attend regularly, you may want to take stock of the relative health of the PLC starting with the SPL and ASPL. Adult leader influence (i.e. sarcasm, cynicism, vocal doubts about abilities or such) should be checked as well – after all, scouts are cheerful, friendly, courteous and brave (among other great qualities – we just need to be practicing them faithfully).
Feedback from the youngest and newest members of the troop may be critical to diagnosing mis-perceptions and misunderstandings.
Take time to motivate top level leaders to reinvest in their own leadership style, and take the pulse of the unit frequently for feedback.