Who can the boss, the person at the very top, turn to when personal problems arise? A recent article alerts us that the answer is often 'other leaders', examining what prompts a CEO to support another, and how this matters for the organisation.
It's understandable that people from similar circumstances may provide each other valuable support, through advice, validation or needed perspective. But what impels busy, driven people to offer it? Researchers Michael McDonald and James Westphal took an observation from social identification theory: we like to help other members of a group we identify with. They decided to explore whether CEOs help peers when they perceive themselves as members of a shared social category: the “leadership cadre”. Their study used surveys year-on-year to investigate CEO personal circumstances, their attitudes towards identity, and a range of behaviours – both towards other CEOs and within their organisation.
Because of the study's fairly complex recruitment methodology, which used their initial 300 respondent CEOs to identify informal CEO support groups to further recruit from, we should be aware that the sample is more focused on CEOs disposed to offer help. With that in mind, the average participant offered support eight times in a year, either to another member of their company board over a round of golf, or through the informal groups. And, as predicted, participants who identified themselves as part of a leadership group were more likely to then offer their fellows support: if their identification grew by a standard deviation, this would lead them to provide social support on an extra eight occasions.
The study shows how such support matters. Each CEO reported any personal problems such as strained marital relations, things that are likely to distract and deplete the energy available for work. These problems, especially when severe, led to a reduction of non-obligatory but vital leadership behaviours, such as mentoring subordinates, over the twelve months that followed them. However, availability of social support from other CEOs substantially mitigated this. In fact, their support had beyond double the impact of that of support from family and friend networks.
Given the amount of research on leadership, it's surprising how little focuses on the person within the suit. This research outlines how home-life can take a toll on leadership effectiveness – especially those activities that can be put off to tomorrow – and how sometimes the solution is for leaders to turn to each other.
Michael L. McDonald, & James D. Westphal (2011). My Brother's Keeper? CEO Identification with the Corporate Elite, Social Support Among CEOs, and Leader Effectiveness Academy of Management Journal, 54 (4), 661-693