December 21, 2010

Leadership and attribution styles: does modesty work?

Cora Hagen asked me an interesting question about Jim Collins' Level-5 leadership relates to Martin Seligman's explanation of optimistic attribution styles. First, I'll explain these concepts briefly and then I'll reflect on Cora's interesting question.

Level 5 leadership: the window and the mirror
In Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team have analyzed the leadership behaviors of leaders of extraordinarily successful companies (more about this here). They called the leadership style of these leaders Level 5 leadership which was characterized by professional will and personal modesty. Collins uses the metaphor of the window and the mirror to describe how Level 5 leaders talk about failure and success. When results are poor, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck. When results are good, they look out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company to other people, external factors and good luck.

Optimistic and pessimistic attribution styles
In order to make sense of what happens in their lives, people attribute explanations to events in their lives. Psychologists call this process 'attribution'. Martin Seligman (in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life) described the following three dimensions of people's attributional (or 'explanatory') styles: 1) Permanence: is the cause of the event permanent or temporary?, 2) Pervasiveness: will the cause of event affect every aspect of life (permanent) or only this context (specific)?, 3) Personalization: is the cause of the event internal (caused by self) or external (cause by others)? Seligman explained that the difference between optimism and pessimism can be described with these three dimensions. When we are thinking pessimistically, we tend to believe that negative events 1) are permanent, 2) pervasive, and 3) internally caused. We tend to believe that positive events are 1) temporary, 2) non-pervasive, and 3) externally causes. The opposite is the case when we are thinking optimistically. In that state of mind we interpret negative events as 1) temporary, 2) non-pervasive, and 3) externally and we interpret positive events as 1) are permanent, 2) pervasive, and 3) internally caused. In his book, Seligman explains that in many circumstances in life an optimistic thinking style as defined above has many advantages and leads to many positive mental health, work and life outcomes. Also he demonstrates that an optimistic thinking style can be learned by training.

How have Level 5 leaders become successful with their apparently pessimistic attribution styles?
The optimistic attribution style can be viewed as a bit of a self-serving attribution style. Events are interpreted favorably for the self. In Level 5 leadership, the opposite seems to happen: these leaders seem to have pessimistic attribution styles, self-undermining attribution styles. How does this relate to the idea that, generally, an optimistic attribution style is associated with mental health?  Isn't this counterintuitive? If the optimistic attribution style is associated with so many positive outcomes, how come these leaders have become successful with their apparently pessimistic attribution styles? Here are a few interpretations.
  1. Acting modestly to prevent malicious envy: One interpretation is that Level 5 leaders act so modestly to prevent people becoming jealous of them. Recent research shows that successful people can worry that their success can lead to malicious envy of some people which might try to bring them down. This fear of envy can encourage successful people you might act more socially because you try to appease those envious people. The modest attribution style may be an example of how the Level 5 leaders, consciously or unconsciously, prevent being envied and thereby create more safety for themselves. 
  2. Consciously promoting an optimistic attribution style of employees: The window and mirror aspect of level 5 leadership isn't new. More than 2000 years ago, Chinese philosopher Laozi is reported to have said: "Learn from the people / Plan with the people / Begin with what they have / Build on what they know / of the best leaders / When the task is accomplished / The people all remark / We have done it ourselves". In this case, the leader is quite aware that what he or she has done will lead to the perception of employees that the success was caused by them. This Laozi leader consciously chooses this. The same may be the case with Level 5 Leadership. Level 5 leaders may consciously present reality in such a way that employees will not attribute the success to their leader, which is likely make it easier to attribute it to themselves. They may try to do this to encourage an optimistic attribution style with their employees in order to promote optimism, a sense of autonomy and competence and mental health. There may be a disconnect between how Level 5 leaders talk and how they think. Publicly, they may attribute modestly; privately they may be less modest. 
  3. Transcending the need for self-serving attribution: An alternative explanation might be that Level 5 leaders have, as it were, to a large degree transcended the need for acknowledgement so that they can authentically attribute success and failure realistically and have become freer from self-serving bias. Perhaps this realism makes them more effective in dealing with reality. Maybe they -and all of us- have every reason to be modest about our own contributions and maybe it works to be. 


  1. Could what is perceived as modesty be actually a not-knowing attitude? Beginner's Mind?

    Maybe they are humble because of a Socratic realization that their knowledge is limited.

    Also, due to some synchronicity I discovered this morning that there is a Wikipedia page for Explanatory Style

  2. Hi Peter, I think realizing the limits of your knowing fits well with a modest view. thanks

  3. As Level 5 leader is team facilitator - is it not reality that modesty pervade? Level 5 has a constructionist view in that success is socially defined. Flat hierarchy - group accomplishment, no?
    Thank you,

  4. Coert,

    I think all three hypothesis you presented are viable. As for the third "Transcending the need for self-serving attribution" that could be a result of these leaders being high in Self Compassion. People high in self-compassion have much less need for self-serving attributions as their self-esteem is not contingent on success or failure.

  5. Hi anonymous, I think that is true. I think the value of an organzation usually has more to do with the entire system than with the leader. What is most important is how the people within the organization are connected. The leader is not the one person who directs and controls it all. Instead, I think, he or she is usually the person who tries to give meaning to what happens in and around the organization and acts as a spokeperson. Only occasionally, the role of the leader may be larger (for good or for bad!)

  6. Hi Rodney,
    Thanks. That is interesting: "People high in self-compassion have much less need for self-serving attributions as their self-esteem is not contingent on success or failure." Do you have a reference for that?

  7. Rodney, NVC provides a clue to why this happens. Success & failure are connected to doing things Right or Wrong. Moving out of that thinking to "Let's make life wonderful" provides an opportunity to perceive everything as a success. Also, making life wonderful is almost always fulfilled by doing stuff to other people. So, you help others but for selfish reasons; your life is more wonderful due to giving; in giving you receive.

  8. Coert,

    Here's a link to a study in which they tell about how self compassion leads people to fewer self-serving attributions.

    You can find a quote on that on page 16 under the headling "Self-Compassion Versus Self-Esteem" paragraph 2.

  9. thanks, Rodney! For those who read along, here is that part in the article:

    ""One difference between selfcompassion and self-esteem might involve defensiveness. When people high in self-esteem encounter negative life events, they sometimes engage in self-serving biases (e.g., downward social comparisons, egotistical attributions), presumably because such reactions help to make them feel better about themselves (Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Taylor & Brown, 1988). In contrast, selfcompassionate people may assume personal responsibility while simultaneously being kind to themselves. Both of these tactics can help people to avoid negative selffeelings, but self-compassion may have an advantage that selfenhancement does not. As many theorists have noted, people often maintain positive self-feelings through self-serving illusions (Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Leary, 2004; Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996; Taylor & Brown, 1988). However, such illusions are often maintained tenuously, girded by a certain degree of selfdeception and in spite of other people’s unflattering judgments. Not only do self-serving illusions compromise people’s ability to see themselves and other people accurately (Leary, 2004, 2007), but they are sometimes impossible to sustain in the face of incontrovertible evidence of one’s shortcomings. In contrast, a selfcompassionate orientation requires no illusions or defensiveness but rather involves a clear perception of one’s characteristics, both good and bad. Given that it may be more beneficial to recognize rather than deny one’s shortcomings, while remaining kind and understanding toward oneself, self-compassion may foster accurate perceptions and, thus, more effective behavior.”

  10. Hello,
    I would like to thank you for all the comments. They're very interesting. I'm learning a lot with them. Tkanks for the information about the study, Rodney.



  11. Hi everyone
    Thanks for a very thought-provoking discussion and special thanks for the reference to the article on self-compassion - looking forward to reading it more closely. Svea

  12. Different types of leadership style offer different types of result. Most probably leadership style is varied with different people; as their way of thinking and working styles are quite different from each other. In order to develop our leadership style, we need to observe working style and thinking style of different leaders.
    Leadership Coach


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