Leadership and Positive Social Contagion

by Jennifer Miller on February 8, 2012

in Leadership

Are there any positive leadership stories out there anymore?



Sometimes, I feel like Ben Stein’s economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, casting about for any story that sheds a positive light on the ability to lead with character. In the last week alone, I’ve personally heard three stories of leadership failure:




  • A distribution supervisor for a mid-sized company works 13 hours a day with no overtime pay, six days a week for a year to help oversee the construction of and relocation to a more modernized distribution facility. The week before the facility opens, his employment is terminated, with ½ a week’s salary as his severance. He is given no explanation of why.
  • The third-shift foreman of a manufacturing facility puts in a bid to work first shift, for any job description (foreman or otherwise.)He is told by the plant manager, “the only way you’ll ever work first shift is to go work for another company.”
  • A project manager for a research facility plays host to a nationally published magazine, who is on location to report on a successful medical research breakthrough the company has achieved.  The project manager is put in an awkward position when interviewed because he’s just found out that funding has been cut and all of his staff is being let go. He’s been instructed by upper management not to report this to the magazine writer conducting the interview.

It would be tempting to think that advocating for character-based leadership is a waste of time.

I mean, is it really worth it?

But then, I remember.

I recall that I do know honorable people in positions of leadership. I’ve worked for them. Many of them have mentored me. It’s not that all people in leadership roles are untrustworthy slimes; it’s that there are two kinds of leaders:

Those who spread positive intent and those who don’t.

Here’s the thing: research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that both positive behaviors like cooperating and negative behaviors like hoarding information are contagious. Social psychologists call this phenomenon “social contagion”.  I know, kind of gross-sounding, right? But it’s only gross when people are spreading around icky stuff: greed, fear, selfishness, favoritism.

When people share encouragement, hope, and praise— now that’s a contagion worth spreading. According to researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard, it takes just a few brave acts of showing kindness for the positive behavior to take hold. One simple act has the ability to spread “three degrees of separation.” Most interestingly, the study authors note that “groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups.”

So for those of us who believe the best way to lead is from a position of positive influence, built around integrity, we must foster altruism. There are two types of leadership contagions out there and we need to be vigilant to spread the positive sort around. Our teams’ survival depends on it.

We need to help positive leadership contagion flourish.  

Because if we don’t, then it will be nothing but bad leadership stories. 




{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin Schreyer February 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm


I tend to be a little germophobic, so your contagion is striking a chord with me!!!

I read about a study once where they showed brain scans of people who were being positive and sharing that positivity with others. They found that not only did the receiver have a positive physical effect on their brain, but the one doing the “good deed” also had positive effects AND, get this – SO did anyone else who witnessed the positive behavior!!! Isn’t that awesome?! It really IS contagious!!!

Jennifer Miller February 8, 2012 at 10:11 pm


How excellent! More scientific evidence that being positive CAN make a difference.

Thanks for sharing.

Deb Costello February 9, 2012 at 9:20 am

This week a colleague’s toxic email has been the subject of conversation, anger, and pain in my community. The leadership here is stepping up to deal with the individual, but for some, the damage is already done and they are having trouble letting this go. I finally took one woman’s computer from her and deleted the email so that she could stop spinning…

We decide what we allow into our lives and how we manage the continual input that bombards us… there will always be negativity around us. Perhaps we can strive to be it’s last stop.

Art Petty February 9, 2012 at 10:34 am

Jennifer, while the negative examples are plentiful, I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the volume of great examples I encounter. Aside from my corporate/professional market work, I have a passion for teaching, and I have the good fortune to engage with a few hundred professionals (grad students and experienced adults) every year, and I am consistently blown away by the great leader stories from unlikely places that my students relate in these programs.

Almost everyone I encounter has at least one example of someone at some point in their career that led by example, provided support and coaching and inspired them to higher levels of performance. Take heart, they are out there. I’ve noticed as well that those who have been touched by one of these effective leaders feel a compulsion to carry it forward. That’s good for the cause!

The cause is noble…the impact tangible and the alternative (no pursuit of character based leadership) unthinkable. While lousy leaders are plentiful, the demand for good leaders and character-based leadership is endless. Keep spreading the word! -Art

Jennifer Miller February 9, 2012 at 11:25 am


Welcome to The People Equation!

What a wonderful image– striving to be the “last stop” on the train to negativity. Or, maybe you meant we’re the first stop on board the Train of Positive Influence? Either way, I like it!

Jennifer Miller February 9, 2012 at 11:27 am


Thank you so much for the encouraging words. It’s easy to get discouraged. And you are right– to cede to the alternative is unacceptable!

Bernd February 12, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Jennifer, thanks for this very good article. I like especially your sentence: “There are two types of leadership contagions out there and we need to be vigilant to spread the positive sort around.” You are absolutely true with this. There is so much motivation and energy wasted or even destroyed by people who behave in the negative sort of leadership. What frustrates me sometimes with this is: Often these people do not even recognize that they are doing something wrong.

Jennifer Miller February 12, 2012 at 7:55 pm


Welcome to The People Equation. I quite agree– isn’t it sad how some people don’t even realize the negative contagion they are spreading?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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