Baboons, Business Leaders and Contagions

Pepper de Callier

Being a leader is a complex, demanding and paradoxical undertaking. Having the desire, though, to be a good leader—one who consistently brings out the best in others—that’s even more complex, demanding and paradoxical.

Once one accepts the mantle of “Leader”, they enter a world in which it’s easy to lose one’s sense of reality. The tendency is to continue doing what it was that got you promoted to that leadership position. That makes sense if what got you promoted was a well-developed sense of social and emotional intelligence in addition to your functional, technical, managerial and personal performance attributes. Unfortunately, all too often, it is the cognitive intelligence and technical skills that are rewarded as justification for the promotion, which is just about when the problems begin to surface and someone like me is called in for a reality check.

There have been many studies conducted over the past two decades about the effect the attainment of power has on someone. In many cases the attainment of power not only made people less caring for others and more focused on their own personal needs, some people also began to disregard accepted social norms, such as being on time, politeness to others or, their manners in general. Simply stated, the rules, or norms, don’t apply to them any more now they have power.

Now, here’s the good news. I truly believe that in the majority of cases people are unaware of the effect their behavior has on those around them. More likely than not, the person who was promoted is an “alpha”. Being top-performers and absolutely driven to excel, alphas can easily miss the subtleties and complexities of leadership, one of which is that leaders need followers and good leaders need dedicated, motivated, trusting followers.

In a recent article on leadership in the Harvard Business Revue, Julia Kirby cites various interesting anthropological studies done on primate (this is the baboon part) behavior. Studies of apes and monkeys have shown that when they are threatened, subordinates in the group glance obsessively at the alpha, or leader, to monitor his reaction which gives the group a gauge with which to assess how dangerous the threat is. We humans may be on a different branch of the primate tree and the threats may be different, but our reactions are remarkably the same.

Behavioral psychologists have long ago isolated a phenomena they call “emotional contagion”. This wonderfully named effect on human behavior is so simple and yet incredibly powerful. Yes, the obvious correlation here would be that in tough economic times, we look to our leaders for signs that things are getting better or worse, so we know how we should feel, but there is much, much more to this contagion for the person who aspires to be a good leader.

One of the paradoxes faced by a good leader is best described in this passage from the ancient text of the Tao, “The greater one’s power, the greater the need for humility.”
Here’s how I interpret that. The more authority and power one achieves, the more powerful even the slightest gesture, glance, or word has on those around them. Good leaders know that they are being observed all the time—all the time. Being humble also means showing respect. When a leader is on time for meetings and doesn’t habitually cancel or reschedule meetings, he is showing respect and humility. When a leader lets others speak without interruption, she is being humble and respectful. Because of the power a leader has and the natural desire for subordinates to model a leader’s behavior, this demonstration of respect begins to act like a contagion—others become “infected” with it and begin to exhibit similar “symptoms”. When a leader smiles at someone they are passing on the contagion. When a leader gives someone a ‘high-five’ as he walks down the hall, he is infecting others with enthusiasm and pride.

You get the picture. To some, this contagion idea sounds like gooey, syrupy, soft skill stuff that “real” leaders—the kind of leaders who are under the pressure of the real world—don’t have time for. That, however, would be where they are wrong.

Exhaustive scientific studies by researchers such as Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Robert Sutton, P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, among many others, testify to the superior “hard” results—using any accepted metric for business performance—delivered by soft skills. Doesn’t sound like such a waste of time when you put it that way does it?

So, here’s the question: If you went to a leadership doctor for a check-up, what would she discover? A contagion that is weakening the performance of others, leaving them tired, exhausted, and unmotivated? Or would she find a contagion that empowers, enlivens, motivates, and generally makes people feel good to be around you? Unlike most contagions, you do have a choice of how you will infect others. Use it wisely.