The Praise and Perils of Leadership In Challenging Times | Center for Leadership | Florida International University | FIU
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The Praise and Perils of Leadership In Challenging Times


In the best and worst of times, leaders bear the praise - and perils - of events that befall organizations and themselves.

Two papers discussing how leadership responds in times of crisis shared honors for the 2021 Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Outstanding Dissertation Award presented by the Center for Leadership at FIU.

Cynthia K. Maupin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership in the School of Management at Binghamton University (SUNY), explored how immediate, critical, and novel shocks affect how leader-driven communication impacts system recovery. Hemant Kakkar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Management with the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, discussed how when leaders transgress social norms, their social status colors the severity with which they are punished.

Together, the papers reveal how leadership impacts the way organizations and society treat leaders in times of crisis. Now entering its second decade, the global award is a partnership between the Center and the Network of Leadership Scholars honoring researchers whose dissertations make an outstanding contribution to the field of leadership. Drs. Maupin and Kakkar will present their findings at the Leadership Research Colloquium in Spring 2022. The award also includes a $1,500 cash prize for each honoree.

Dr. Maupin was a University of Georgia Ph.D. candidate and a research fellow with the U.S. Army Research Institute (ARI) where she explored leadership processes, networks, and multi-team systems. While at a conference, she met fellow U.S. Army researchers from the Army Research Lab (ARL) and discovered their lab was gathering data on combat training simulations to see how multiteam systems responded to crises. These simulations included “exogenous shocks” such as IED explosions, supply line disruptions, and vehicle or equipment breakdowns.

Her paper, entitled “The Costs and Benefits of Leader-Driven Communication Structures for Promoting Rapid System Recovery After Exogenous Shocks,” used lab data gathered from 93 individuals in various platoons, disparate teams, and even international units participating in the simulation exercises. Many had never before collaborated. With no strong working relationship, how would leaders and subordinates from colonels to privates and their systems respond to the unknown? Especially in dynamic and extreme situations that demanded an immediate response, she wondered.

Her dissertation proposed that the effectiveness of leader-driven communication in the face of exogenous shocks would be dependent on whether the shock was highly immediate, mission-critical, and/or novel. If shocks require immediate attention, leaders should be driving the communication within and between their units. However, when shocks are highly mission-critical or are unfamiliar to those involved, leader-driven communication structures might create ineffective bottle-necks and/or prevent innovative solutions originating from lower-level units from emerging rapidly. Importantly, sometimes the leaders need to defer to subordinates to inform their response. Her findings are equally fitting in the corporate environment.

“In times of crisis or when something is not going as expected, it’s a natural tendency for a leader to assume it falls on their shoulders, to jump into action and make the decisions. That can be good for some types of shocks, when it’s life-or-death and decisions have to be made quickly,” she said. “However, there are other situations, like in novel shocks where something is brand new to the leader, where they need to take a step back and listen to others, take more time to consider their blind spots, and make sure the communication process is helping the group move forward.”

Dr. Kakkar’s paper, entitled “Fall From Grace: The Role of Dominance and Prestige in the Punishment of High-Status Leaders,” discussed the fallout faced by leaders who transgress social norms. His work found that their social status colors the severity with which they are punished.

Drawing on the evolutionary theory of dominance and prestige as two alternate forms of status within social hierarchies, Dr. Kakkar suggested that leaders associated with dominance-based status will be penalized more harshly than actors whose status is based on prestige.

The first of two examples he cited was that of Timothy Geithner, who served in the Clinton Administration and later was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2003 to 2009. Geithner was nominated to serve as Secretary of the Treasury under President Barack Obama. Yet, during confirmation hearings, it was disclosed that Geithner had not paid $35,000 in federal taxes. Geithner, a highly respected federal banker, paid the taxes and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Senator Tom Daschle suffered a similar revelation, but a different fate. Daschle was nominated, also by President Obama, to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services. It soon was revealed he failed to pay about $140,000 in back taxes. Daschle, who had risen to majority leader, withdrew his nomination. Two years later, he was upset in his senate re-election bid.

“These were two top leaders with similar transgressions, vying for similar positions,” Dr. Kakkar said. “Because Geithner played such an influential role, he was respected and admired. That helped in some ways soften the blow.”

This and multiple other studies involving individuals of varying dominance, prestige and levels of misconduct, “we consistently demonstrate that high-status dominant actors are punished more harshly than their prestigious counterparts,” he wrote. “Further, we find that attributions of intentionality and lack of moral credentials explain the harsher punishments meted out to dominant (versus prestigious) high-status actors.”

As these two papers reveal, leaders receive praise in times of success and punishment when they fail, but it’s not always delivered equally, depending on the situation or their status,” said Nathan J. Hiller, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Center for Leadership. “As with the work of past award winners, the lessons here aren’t just for military leaders or those in government. Leaders with any organization have much to learn and navigate to ensure they’re prepared for the perks and perils of modern leadership.”

Both honorees thanked the Center for Leadership for the award and were optimistic their work would advance leadership thinking.

“This award brings an amazing sense of accomplishment,” Dr. Maupin said. “But it’s also humbling to be recognized alongside other junior scholars who are doing cutting-edge leadership research. Past winners have made a great impact on the field of leadership, and I hope to follow in their footsteps.”

“I never saw myself as a leadership scholar,” Dr. Kakkar said. “This is an affirmation that there is something that leaders and scholars appreciate about this work and what I’m doing is helping better understand leadership and management.”

About the writer

Jeff Zbar
South Florida native Jeff Zbar has enjoyed a 30-plus year freelance career as a journalist, editor, author, and marketing copywriter. His portfolio of print and digital work appears in media outlets and for corporate clients across all areas of business and industry.