When we think of leaders, our minds often jump to those in leadership positions, such as major politicians or CEOs of elite companies. But leadership is in fact a disposition. In the right context, anyone has the potential to be a leader.
True leaders make a positive impact. Their decisions benefit their organizations, the broader society, and the environment in which they operate.
That’s why Ivey Assistant Professor Lucas Monzani takes a particular interest in who these leaders are, and how they make decisions. His research seeks to elevate leader character and commitment alongside competency as pillars that sustain exemplary leadership.
Character matters: Understanding how leader character prevents the corruption of power
Monzani is part of Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, which has a three C approach to explaining leadership excellence: competency counts, character matters, and commitment is critical.
Many business schools do a good job of teaching competence, or the technical skills a leader needs, Monzani explained, but they can neglect the other two facets. All three are crucial to effective leadership.
Ivey’s Leadership Institute has developed a framework comprising of 11 character dimensions that describe an effective leader: courage, accountability, justice, temperance, integrity, humility, humanity, collaboration, drive, transcendence, and judgment.
According to Monzani, the key finding is that these 11 dimensions are all connected in a network structure, with judgment as its connecting hub. Leaders need good judgment to balance their decision-making process. For example, while drive and courage will energize leaders to pursue innovative visions, using judgment to balance these traits with temperance or humility will prevent leaders from being reckless and taking unnecessary risks.
Given the importance of judgment, it is critical to understand the connection between character and the effect power has on leaders’ decisions. A number of studies show that holding uncontested power for long periods of time interferes with leaders’ decision-making skills.
“There’s a famous saying from Lord Acton, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’” Monzani said. This “corruption of power” ties in to the concept of leader hubris, a phenomenon found in leaders who remain unchallenged while in power. It can’t be explained by pre-existing psychological issues, Monzani said. Instead, it has to do with a temporal impairment of judgment.
In normal situations, leaders have a balance between intuition and analysis. They may have a “gut feeling” about something, but they’ll try to reason with their rational side before executing a decision.
Leader hubris, on the other hand, takes that rationality out of the equation.
“With hubris, you make decisions based only on a gut feeling first, and then you try to justify the decision after the fact,” he said. “In an extreme hubris situation, there’s no rationale. It’s more like ‘We’re going to do this because I’m the boss.’ This is the most dangerous form of hubris, and will definitely lead to nemesis (a leader’s downfall).”
The research in progress
Monzani is currently working with Rachel Sturm, an associate professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, to explore the connection between character strengths and the effects that power has on leaders.
Existing research has shown that being unchallenged for a period of time can create corruption of power. But is there a way to prevent this? Monzani and Sturm are exploring if character can protect against this corruption.
The researchers are planning a set of laboratory experiments – one in Ohio and one here in London, Ontario – to explore the relationship between character and power at different levels. One test Monzani will look into is the “Hot-Hand Fallacy,” the belief that if you’ve been successful in the past, you’ll be successful in the future. Take gambling for example. If you’ve been winning on a slot machine for a while, your testosterone will increase, and you’ll believe you can keep winning – until of course, you lose.
The results of Monzani and Sturm’s research will show whether people who score high in character respond differently than those who score lower.
Commitment is critical: Where does a leader’s true power come from?
Together with Ivey Professor Mary Crossan, Monzani is also developing a framework that complements and expands the 11 dimensions of leader character. Monzani and Crossan seek to explain what makes leaders commit to leadership.
The main difference between the leader character model and the commitment to lead framework is the latter’s focus on relationships. Commitment explores how leaders relate to the human and non-human components of an organization. Commitment to lead understands leadership as a holistic process in which leaders are embedded within groups of people but also subject to external forces beyond their control (industry or market pressures, state-wide policies).
Commitment to lead has three facets: aspiration, engagement, and sacrifice.
Aspiration refers to how leaders relate to their ulterior motives to lead. Does one lead for the prestige that comes with a leadership position? For the opportunities that it might bring? A strong aspiration can energize leaders to exceed even their own expectations.
Engagement looks at how leaders relate to other stakeholders such as project teams, peers, or clients. Engaged leaders know that true power comes from stakeholders’ support. Leaders take care of others, and in return they take care of the business.
Sacrifice refers to how leaders relate to the external forces beyond their control. At times, the resources available just aren’t enough to get a job done. In these situations, sacrificial leaders will go above and beyond to invest their own time or resources.
“The challenge for leaders regarding their commitment to lead is balancing these three to remain in a harmonious, optimal commitment,” Monzani said. “Excessive aspiration can lead to unchecked greed, excessive engagement can lead to over-attachment, and excessive sacrifice can lead to resource depletion.”
Monzani and Crossan are in the process of testing their framework. The have already completed a pilot study and they plan on completing a field study next to see if their findings from a generic sample apply to a real workplace.
Monzani credits two Ivey professors for their mentorship and for helping make his research agenda possible – Crossan and Professor Gerard Seijts, Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. “My research agenda is just an outcome of their mentoring and guidance,” he said.