The Superman Effect of Contagious Leadership

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I was speaking to a colleague last week who wasn’t feeling as if his leadership mattered. He has a high functioning team that needs little motivation and even less direction. These are good problems to have unless you 1) are an overachiever, and/or 2) achieve fulfillment through your ability to “fix” the work environment.

You may say my friend is humble, but he’s not…he’s really, really not. He is downplaying the contagious nature of his leadership. If this sounds unlikely, consider the superhero equivalent of the super-leader, Superman. With his “S” emblem and red cape, Superman outruns speeding bullets and leaps buildings in the pursuit of truth and justice. He doesn’t do it for glory or wealth; it is about doing the right thing.

The suit doesn’t make the hero. A hero is made in the moment by the choices that he makes and the reasons that he makes them. A hero brings out the best in people.—Clark Kent, Smallville

Superman’s ideals and the ways in which he chooses to accomplish these ideals make him a powerful symbol to other superheroes, the public at large, and those who read about his adventures. His leadership is infectious…and if you think this sounds corny, consider the research.

We already know behaviors are contagious. Studies by UC San Diego’s James Fowler and Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis have found that having happy friends increases the probability of your happiness by 25%; overweight friends make it 60% more likely that you will also be overweight; and if you have a close friend who’s divorced, you are 33% more likely to follow suit. A new study shows that “social contagion” is a natural by-product of effective leadership, as well.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, strong leaders are more likely to churn out strong leaders. According to the findings, high-level managers whose overall leadership effectiveness was in the top 10% had direct reports (mid-level managers) who were also rated far above average. These mid-level managers scored in the top 81st percentile and, to continue the contagious snowball effect, their subordinates scored in the top 74th percentile. Conversely, the direct reports of the worst-performing high-level managers (those in the bottom 10%), scored in the 15th percentile and their subordinates scored in the 24th percentile.

The study also reported that behaviors with the highest correlations between managers and their direct reports include (listed from most to least contagious):

  • Developing self and others
  • Technical skills
  • Strategy skills
  • Integrity
  • Global perspective
  • Results focus

If you want to be a Super team with a Super culture that generates Super leaders, you don’t need to break your company dress code with a skin-tight, blue onesie. Modeling the virtues, traits, and behaviors of a leader is communicable. The more you do it, the more others will, too.

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