Do Good and Poor Bosses Clone Themselves?

When I train or coach front line supervisors, I am struck how often they are unable to think of a good manager for whom they have worked. It is so much easier to learn and then apply good management skills when you have someone in mind who has actually demonstrated them with you. (“How would Jennifer handle this employee? What would Frank do in this situation? What I remember Amanda said to turn her team around was… “)

But does this mean that the leaders you have worked for in your career determine how good a leader you will be? In a recent HBR Blog post leadership researchers Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman share some data on this very question.

They looked at leaders at two consecutive organizational levels (let’s call them levels A & B) and their assessed degree of overall effectiveness. In particular, they pulled out the top and bottom 10% of the A leaders (in terms of their effectiveness) and noted the effectiveness of the B leaders reporting respectively to these distinct ends of the spectrum. Zenger and Folkman were interested to know to what extent the least effective A leaders bred poor B leaders reporting to them and what the impact was of the most effective A leaders on their direct report managers. Here is what they found:

  • Of B managers reporting to the least effective A bosses,
    • 14% fell into the “worst” B managers category (i.e. the bottom 10% of B’s)
    • But 7% were assessed as being among the “best” 10% of B’s
  • Of B managers reporting to the most effective A bosses,
    • Only 7% fell into the least effective B’s category
    • A full 24% landed in the “best” of the B’s

Here is what I conclude from these results:

  1. While the quality of a manager does have a positive/negative effect on managers who work for him/her, it isn’t terribly strong.
  2. A strong leader has a disproportionately positive impact on the quality of their direct reporting managers.
  3. Build strong leadership skills and behaviors in your more senior managers and you will benefit from a positive trickle-down impact on the next management level. This is decidedly a “two-fer” payback on your investment in leadership development.
  4. This impact is surely compounded when, over time, a supervisor or manager experiences the role modeling of one good boss after another.

Einstein is quoted as claiming the most powerful force in the universe to be compound interest. I wonder what he would say about the compound effect of developing strong senior leaders who beget good managers who beget good managers who beget…

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Ian Cook, presenter and consultant, works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team. To book Ian for a training seminar, team facilitation or keynote presentation, call toll-free at: 1-888-FULCRUM (385-2786) or e-mail: For more articles and book reviews of interest to managers please go to: