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Mihaylo Professor Discovers Key to Successful Leadership

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What is it that makes people want to follow and perform well for a leader?

Ryan Gottfredson, assistant professor of management at Cal State Fullerton, explored this question in his study, “Leadership Behaviors and Follower Performance: Deductive and Inductive Review of Theoretical Rationales and Underlying Mechanisms,” which was recently honored with the Journal of Organizational Behavior Best Paper Award.

Gottfredson found that people are more likely to follow and perform when they perceive that they have a good relationship with their leader. This finding broadens the scope of current leadership theory, emphasizing this critical relational element rather than focusing solely on leader behavior.

How did you get interested in researching leadership?

In high school, my favorite class was sports psychology, where we read leadership books from people like Stephen R. Covey, Pat Riley and Mike Krzyzewski. I loved learning how to help people become better so that they could make their teams and organizations better. 

Leadership is all about having a positive influence on others. I love learning how I can be a more positive influence on those around me and helping others do the same to reach higher levels of effectiveness and success.

Why was your work on leaders and followers award-winning?

Academic journal articles have two audiences — other researchers and business practitioners. This article adds value to both parties. 

We have long known that positive leadership behaviors translate into positive outcomes, but we have not clearly understood why. My paper integrates essentially all of the research on leadership behaviors over the last 70 years, ultimately adding up to over 930,349 individual responses to surveys during this timeframe.

We essentially pitted different proposed explanations against each other and found that the primary reason why positive leadership behaviors lead to effective job performance is because such behaviors enhance positive relationships between leader and follower, and when these relationships exist, employees perform at a higher level. 

For leadership researchers, we answered a central question in the field. For business practitioners, we identified positive leader-follower relationships as being one of the most essential aspects of leadership effectiveness, so leaders should focus on that.

What does your expertise bring to Mihaylo students?

I am on the cutting edge of leadership thought and practice, publishing articles in top-tier academic journals and consulting for prominent companies (CVS Health, Deutsche Telekom, Mondelez). I can give students the best and most current guidance on how to become better leaders. 

What progress, if any, has been made in U.S. leadership over the years?

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that organizational leadership has improved significantly over the last 30 years. Most research has focused on what leaders need to DO, but leadership is also about BEING someone that others want to follow. 

What are the “hot topics” in leadership research and what are you studying next?

We are seeing a growing wave of new leadership thought and research focused on this being element of leadership. I think those taking this new approach toward leadership will see monumental gains in leadership effectiveness. 

The element of being that I am studying is mindsets — the mental lenses we use to interpret our world, shaping how we think, learn and behave. They are truly foundational to everything that we do. If leaders become aware of their mindsets, they can become empowered to change their being and enhance their leadership. 

Read more about Gottfredson’s work in this Mihaylo College of Business and Economics article.