Leadership Effectiveness and Early Family Dynamics: Research Findings along with Insights Inspired by My Mom’s Recent Death

Posted by Dr. Holly Latty-Mann on

My mom recently, suddenly passed away, allowing the upside of grief to manifest in writing about the influence of early family dynamics on leadership effectiveness later on in life. To clarify what I mean by leadership effectiveness, I’m working this topic within the context of trust issues, the cornerstone of top-quality leadership. How well do you trust your leaders? Your spouse or partner? Yourself? How well do others trust you? How does one learn to trust, to distrust, to engender trust? Obviously there are times when it is healthy NOT to trust. One thing is certain – the trustworthiness of leaders (and lovers) has determined the building or destroying of nations,  organizations, and on a more microcosmic level, intimate relationships.

I’ve often said if you can get your 2 year-old to do what you want, you’ve just demonstrated great leadership prowess. After all, two year olds tend to do only that which they want to do. Then the two-year-olds grow up, form adult love relationships, and ultimately land a job in the corporate world. How does this adult child inspire others to do what needs to be done to achieve corporate goals, or for that matter, live happily ever after? The basic common denominator here is trust. Without it, we don’t enter contracts, or we suffer unknowingly by sealing untrustworthy ones.

My dissertation was based upon attachment theory. Just google Leadership and Attachment Theory, and you’ll be flooded with data speaking to this topic. Credit for this theory goes to Ainsworth and Bowlby, who won the most prestigious scientific contribution award by the American Psychological Association back in 1989, and to this day the theory continues to draw heavy scientific focus. Attachment theory started methodologically looking at how young children would respond to their mother upon her return following a separation, thereby allowing the majority of these children to be easily categorized as secure, anxious, or avoidant. It’s important to highlight the work of Shaver and Hazan who extended this work to include adult attachment styles – i.e., what happens to these young children when they grow up and enter adult relationships, both at work and in their personal life. Although unaware of one another’s work, my research and that of Bartholomew at Stanford determined a 4th style from the remaining unclassified percentage, all bearing features of both the opposing anxious and avoidant styles. So how does all this relate to leadership?

Having read thousands of feedbacks for executives and managers for over two decades,  I have found behavioral patterns fit the aforementioned styles as follows: 1) Those into controlling people and outcomes tend to bear the anxious attachment style, 2) those who tend to shut down or display a more passive leadership style tend to fit the avoidant style, and 3) those described as predictably fair and generally unproblematic would fit the secure attachment style. The fourth style is the most unpredictable of all four styles, and without intervention, likely creates unintended but periodic drama resulting in unstable relationships.

Insights from both my own family background and findings from my doctoral dissertation have provided additional support for today’s research on “leadership styles a la attachment styles”.  Prior to the recent death of my mother, she took an unusual interest in a book I’m writing on the influence of family dynamics on later leadership effectiveness. She provided with a raw honesty an informal documentary on how our own family dynamics have played out – not all of them good.  For example, for too many years I was what I have coined a “dysfunctional pleaser” in response to my dad’s alcoholism. I am also walking testimony that one can absolutely change for the better.

It’s important to note that one need not come from a family described as dysfunctional to exhibit poor leadership qualities. Likewise, there are plenty of leaders in the corporate world who are well esteemed and yet experienced compromised family-of-origin dynamics. Finally, it’s important to note that no matter where one’s original family fits on the continuum of early family bliss/dysphoria, one cannot be human and not have created some beliefs that interfere with his or her full expression of potential. Family dynamics simply provide a milieu that can facilitate or stress the manifestation of one’s desires and goals. Because there exist countless anecdotes showing how the human spirit can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, there is no reason why mainstream leaders can’t take these insights and dissolve whatever ceiling their self-limiting beliefs may have created from decades earlier.  This should be good fodder for a future blog. Look for Leaders Stripped Naked: The Power of Exposure.       

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