Fresh Perspective: Developing Leaders: An Interview with Bruce Avolio

Russ Volckmann

Developing Leaders: An Interview with Bruce Avolio

From the Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking Foster School of Business University of Washington

Russ Volckmann

Bruce Avolio

Russ: I have been looking forward to talking with you because of your work in leader development. Where did you do your PhD work?

Bruce: At The Akron University, Ohio, in industrial, organizational and gerontological psychology.

Russ: That makes the link between psychology, leadership and organizations. My first memory of your work was with the late Bernard Bass (Center for Leadership Studies, Binghamton University in New York; he authored significant ground breaking work on transformational leadership). My impression is that the notion of transformational leadership has been very important in your thinking. Is that an accurate statement?

Bruce: Yes. It has been important particularly around development, but it’s been important generally in terms of thinking about leadership that changes people, organizations and societies.

Russ: You mentioned a key term: development. It seems to me of the people I’m aware of in the field, there are very few who have made the kind of impact on leader development as you in your academic work. I think of other people like David V. Day, who also worked with the military as you have, among others. Would you tell us about what led you to the focus on development?

Bruce: In my work at Akron University the program had really three core components in terms of majors. One was clinical, another was industrial, and the third was lifespan psychology. Although I have a pretty strong background in clinical, particularly around assessments, I merged my interests in industrial and lifespan psychology. I was interested in differences in how people developed across the lifespan. Initially, I wasn’t at all focused on leadership. I was more focused on the development of capabilities, generally speaking, and what happens to people across the lifespan in terms of their capabilities.

My interest in leadership development began to emerge when I moved to Binghamton in 1981 and started to have conversations with Bernie Bass and others. Around the time, we were talking about transformational leadership and I was particularly interested in James MacGregor Burns’ notion of transforming followers into leaders. Of course, Bernie and the others and myself were also focusing on the charismatic side as well. Up until that point, there really hadn’t been a whole lot of attention to thinking about what actually gets developed when we say a leader or leadership develops. The integration of my life-span psychology roots and transformational leadership led me to really getting deep into what constitutes leader and leadership development.

Russ: When you talk about lifespan psychology, have you extended that into any of the adult development psychology material: stage theories, hierarchical complexity with Michael Commons, or any of those folks?

Bruce: Yes, I have. When I said lifespan, it really included the entire lifespan. In particular, my early work, which had nothing to do with leadership, was on aging and work competency. I did a lot of work in the area of gerontology during the first decade of my career up until tenure. As I was beginning to get interested in how it applies to leadership development, I certainly was looking in particular at Kegan’s work on moral perspective taking as well as Kohlberg’s, because I was interested in the light and dark sides of charismatic leadership. I wanted to try to understand what were the developmental components that made up those two types of leaders.

I started to look at those developmental theories, including Eric Erikson among others. I was almost always pretty oriented towards development being fairly elastic, even in my work on age competencies. I believe that as people get older, there are many things that they do even better. That actually proved out in the work that we were doing and age and work capabilities.

In terms of leadership development, I’m not such a strong proponent of stages. I think stages are a helpful way for us to think about and compartmentalize leadership development. But the notion that people go through different levels of complexity certainly fits my thinking about leader development, whether it is the leader’s self-complexity, more reasoning complexity or leader self-concept complexity and how those evolve and develop.

Russ: What did you find in a model such as Kegan’s that is essentially a stage model? Did you look at William Perry? Did you look more recently at Jane Loevinger’s work and how Susanne Cook-Greuter or Bill Torbert have built on that? What is it you get from those perspectives that you are seeing as relevant and valuable to leader development?

Bruce: Well, a variety of things. I’ll start out most recently and work back. Most recently is in our putting forward the concept of developmental readiness. It fits very well with the idea that people will be at different points along the developmental continuum. We call it stages or just a continuum. Because they are at different points, we engage them in different ways, if you want to accelerate development.

The absolute ideal situation is where we would be able to align the readiness of individuals to the type of developmental experiences and challenges that we present. I think in doing that, we would be able to move people along more quickly in their development. Whereas a lot of times, there is a big gap between what we are trying to offer somebody to help develop and where they are in terms of their readiness.

There’s a range, of course, in which that works. Sometimes, you stretch people beyond what their upper limit of readiness is. Most often, people have a lot of reserve that they’re able to bring to bear, in order to develop. More recently in thinking about these frameworks in terms of developmental readiness, I think leadership development would be optimized if we could align the kind of experiences, training and learning to the readiness of the individual with some degree of flex.


Moving back in time, as I said earlier, I was interested in moral reasoning—the ethical framing aspects of Kegan, Kohlberg and others, including Torbert. We were trying to explain why certain leaders saw the world through the lens of action just being a transaction—quid pro quo, exchange or I get it you don’t—or better yet, what I can do for the good of the group, organization and society. I’ve always been really interested in unpacking how leaders at different levels of moral reasoning really come to their task with different lenses. This could be in development and it could be an actual task in terms of a work assignment. I think that moral reasoning, self-complexity, self-concept clarity lines of research help to unpack that.

Russ: Would you kind of break down the moral reasoning piece for us in terms of how you see that and its role in leader development?

Bruce: Ultimately, we’re trying to develop leaders to higher levels of moral reasoning. The more complex the world gets and the more complexity organizations have to deal with, one would want to position the leadership at the top, middle and every level to be able to handle that complexity. But let’s say we focus on the top leaders and their having the capacity to reason through and see that there may be things that offset other things that are more long term that might need to be taken into account, or that one’s self-interest should not always trump other people’s interests. Indeed, the long-term needs may need to trump the short-term interests for a leader to be successful.

To some extent, we want to have the best leaders in the most senior leadership roles in organizations, and therefore we want people with higher levels of moral reasoning complexity in those positions. This doesn’t mean that they can’t do quid pro quo analysis and satisfy everybody’s self-interest, but they can see beyond that and see that sometimes short-term sacrifice is good for long-term gain.

In the same way, to be able to transform followers into leaders they have to have a higher level of capacity to reason in the long-term. They need to be able to delay gratification. In other words, to put somebody in a leader position you may know that they are not quite going to be the best producer, but you also know that they’re going to develop to a much higher potential, and are willing to make that short-term trade-off. This takes a leader who doesn’t see their people simply as a means to an end to be able to do that.

The minimum qualification for a transformational leader is to have a sufficient level of moral reasoning to be willing to allocate the time, energy and resources to developing others without necessarily any direct benefit to the leader. People who have lower levels of moral reasoning would have a very difficult time doing that because they see the world through a transactional lens: if you do this, you get that. That would restrict them in terms of their development.

Russ: You have written about five specific constructs related to developmental readiness. I’d like to take a minute to look at each one of these.

One of these is the learning goal orientation. I really appreciated your discussion of that. I’ve been doing some research on a rather extensive year-long plus development program for entrepreneurs and CEOs in medium to small businesses. One of the early experiences that these people have in this program is getting in touch with the degree to which they approach things from the position of the knower versus the position of the learner. That is often a very critical “Aha!” experience, one of those critical moments that you also referred to. If they get it, it really opens them to a much longer term learning process and if they don’t get it, this may leave them stuck. Would you say more about the learning goal orientation?

Bruce: I’m noticing that this is as relevant to working with groups as it is to working with individuals. Let me take the individual first. Obviously, by definition learning goal orientation means a willingness to explore and navigate through without necessarily worrying so much that you are not going to achieve the same level of performance that you might expect when you’re in the learning mode. This contrasts with performance goal oriented people.

Let’s be very stereotypical, if you have somebody who’s high in learning goal orientation—let’s not talk about performance goal for a minute in that individual—and let’s take someone else who is high in performance goal orientation. If you just looked at those two individuals, the way you would go about approaching them in terms of their development could be quite different. The performance goal oriented person is oftentimes looking for tools, techniques and probably some rules and a framework that’s very concrete and that’s going to allow them to get this leadership stuff done. The learning goal oriented individual is going to spend more time trying to understand that there is a broader framework and theory, perhaps, and that there maybe a variety of ways that one can approach doing this thing called leadership; they’re not seeing it such a utilitarian way.

The optimum is having someone who is high in learning goal orientation and high in performance goal orientation such that they could drive a task to success when they need to. They could also step back—and this is also where meta-cognitive thinking comes in—and say, “Okay, I understand how this task gets done. But when I reason through it and think about different ways of doing it, I can come up with some maybe fundamentally unique and interesting ways to approach it.” That would be the learning goal oriented side.

On a very practical level as developers we tend to have more challenges working with people who are performance goal oriented than learning goal oriented, because they really want to get to how can I use this. The learning goal oriented person wants to get to how do I understand this.

Working with groups in the last couple of years, we just happened to have some groups that were pretty high in learning goal orientation relative to performance goal orientation. And we had the flipside of that—high performance goal orientation as a group.

The group that was high on performance goal orientation struggled through a lot of the assessments we were doing, including the developmental readiness assessments in the coaching process. Probably a third of them opted out of the developmental process. Another third tolerated the developmental interventions.  The last third that were less performance goal oriented seemed to enjoy the developmental work the most.

In the high learning goal oriented group it was like a developmental Mardi Gras every day. They loved the developmental experiences—“Can we have more? They would ask are there other tools we can try for development?” One of the things I ask them to do is conduct a respected leader interview. They are asked to interview somebody you really respect, reach as high as you can in the organization: the president of your company is not out of reach.

A number of people in the learning goal oriented group didn’t just do one interview. They were emailing me saying, “Is it okay? I’m doing like my second or third interview, I don’t want extra credit. I’m just enjoying this.” I have one guy who has done seven interviews. I’ve asked them to stop it because, I said, “Next year, the class won’t be able to do interviews in your company because you’ll have done them all!” These are hard core learning goal oriented folks.

There are just some very interesting contrasts between the high and low learning or performance goal oriented groups that we have to factor into how we think about leadership development, among other facets of developmental readiness.  Both their starting and end points in terms of development may be quite different.

Russ: It is interesting having you talk about the learning goal orientation. It seems to me you’ve raised issues about the other four constructs that you wrote about in terms of developmental efficacy, self-concept, clarity, self-complexity, and meta cognitive ability. You referred to the last one. It makes me wonder if there is something about meta cognitive ability that is a prerequisite for people to be able to move towards or enhance that learning goal orientation.

Bruce: I would think so. They’re positively related. I don’t know what causes what though. My guess is that they probably feed off each other. Mostly in the psychology of it there’s probably some reciprocal relationship. Probably, if we go back into the early development of the individual, we would likely see the formation of the learning goal oriented individual that results in their becoming more of a meta-cognitive thinker.  Meta cognitive is a bit more of a complex form of thinking and processing. I would guess that the learning goal orientation becomes a base upon which people then become more meta- thinkers over time.

Russ: Another concept you referred to was tools. I think of tools and practices. Very often, tools and practices seem intuitively more associated with the manager role. Yet what I’m finding is that the effective use of certain kinds of self-management and productivity management tools and practices are critical to the development of even the capacity to exercise leadership in organizations. I’m wondering if you see any relationship like that, because it does speak to the attempt to differentiate manager and leader. I don’t always assume that a leader is someone who’s in a formal role. I’m curious if you have some sense of the degree to which the development of specific, what we might think of as manager or self-management  tools and practices, is important for leader development.

Bruce: I want to make sure I understand what you mean by tools. If tools are a survey feedback form or process, well the answer is yes. If tools are like for example what we are doing in some leadership development work with surgical leaders, yes. With this particular group we decided that we didn’t want to take much time, because there was a complaint about their not having any time for development. Such folks lose a lot of money if they are in some day or two long training workshop. What we’ve done in terms of a tool is we’ve created some very short vignettes based on the life of a surgeon and surgical leader. We used those as means of having conversations while they’re suiting up for surgery. It doesn’t take extra time, you know; surgery often starts late. We’re inserting this discussion with this tool around things that really get their attention. So I guess the answer is, yes, in that sense I’m using that as a tool.

Russ: That’s an example of working with leaders in an extreme context, is that right?

Bruce: When they do something very routine every day, they probably don’t see their circumstances as extreme. Of course it can be. If the patient’s vital signs go to zero, it becomes extreme. It is certainly more extreme than necessarily being a bank teller, except when someone walks in with a gun. Then it becomes extreme.

Russ: As long as I brought it up, why don’t we talk about the concept of leadership in the extreme context? I had assumed that that applied primarily to the work you’ve done with the military. Is that correct?

Bruce: No, it is not necessarily restricted to the military. There are a variety of extreme contexts; it depends on what dimensions you’re using. For example, a financial trader could make a decision that could cost their organization a hundred million dollars, so each decision is couched within an extreme context. Oftentimes, we think about extreme context where there is a high degree of risk, not financial, but maybe a physical risk. And if that’s the case, yes, it could apply to trauma teams. It can apply to military units, police, SWAT, firefighters, etc.

We argue that, in fact, the world has created more extreme contexts by the nature of where we’re heading as a civilization. For example, the hotel in Bangalore that I stayed near and actually went to one evening for dinner a few months ago, didn’t have bomb sniffing dogs and people outside with AK-47s. But after the bombing in Bangalore around this particular area where a lot of ex-pats lived, it became an extreme place, an extreme context. But it wouldn’t have been three years ago.

So the nature of the world has changed.

Flying an airplane has become even more extreme than just going 500 miles per hour in a gas can, because now there are people inside that might want to do harm to you. And we’re seeing in business, how rapidly things can change. For example, I was just over at an airline company this morning. They had a meltdown in their transformer. They were actually replacing transformers and it went from very routine—we’re going to plug this into that—into seven hours during Spring Break with planes ready to go and some ready to land not knowing where to go because the computer system went down. What would have been a normal day with typical reservations being executed became in that case extreme.

Russ: What is it you see is the difference in terms of the requirements for effective leaders under these extreme conditions?

Bruce: Look at the things that define extreme. I mentioned risk. It is riskier on a certain set of dimensions whether it’s physical risk or financial risk. One of the things that a leader in the extreme environment needs to be able to do is to be able to reduce uncertainty. In the military context they use a term—situational awareness. That’s an extremely important part of leading in a military context. It is to (1) realize that you likely don’t have all the information you need, and (2) you better build up a pretty strong and coherent unit, because when things go extreme, they have to feel comfortable to challenge you by giving you information that perhaps you’re not ready to receive, but you need to receive.

There are a lot of things that leaders could do in any context to enhance awareness and reduce uncertainty, but a lot of it happens before the extreme conditions set in. How authentic is the leader? How transparent? Are they someone that followers trust? Are they a cement head or are they somebody who has big ears and listens to people? Are they people who ask questions as opposed to provide statements? Are they ethical or not? Are they abusive or not? All those things contribute to how well someone ends up performing.


And then there are some more specific things. You have to have a certain degree of leader efficacy, which includes thought, means and actions. We would say certainly in terms of thought efficacy to know that you’re going to get into those situations and successfully challenge the way people think. And when you’re in those situations, you’re going to have to make some decisions based on the awareness that you have and the information you have gleaned from others. You’re also going to put people at risk and you have to be able to have the action efficacy to take the appropriate action when you need to. The third piece of it is the means. You have to develop your people and have the right resources so that when you’re engaged in that extreme situation you feel like you have everything you need to make the right choices and to execute.

Russ: You used the term authentic. When I first encountered the notion of authentic leadership, it was Bill George’s book. You may have been writing about it before then. What do you mean by authentic leadership?

Bruce: I have known Bill George since he wrote his first book. In fact, I’ll see him in a month or so at Harvard. First of all, we were writing about it at the same time and we went into two very different outlets. He’s more into the popular press and the work we were doing was for the academic press. His book came out in 2003, while our work emerged in 2004 and beyond in the leadership literature.

Actually, in 1997 or 1998, some of us were having a conversation. Jane Howell and I had started to write on personalized and socialized charismatic leaders. We discussed the bad leader types who we see out there doing bad things to people for their own self-aggrandizement. Then we explored the good types. That discussion in the late ’90s, early 2000, led to my early thinking about authentic leadership.

Also, I remember having a conversation with Bernie Bass. He put a paper out with Paul Steidlmeier who is a business policy professor, but really I think he was a former minister and philosopher.  I was talking with Bernie one day about this idea of authenticity and I used the term pseudo vs. authentic transformational, which they used in the article. Using the term pseudo transformational we were raising the question that there are leaders who look like transformational leaders but aren’t and there are leaders who are authentic and really are. We assumed we were talking always about the authentic, but we just made it clearer.

That discussion evolved over time beyond just being an adjective to thinking about what were the components of authentic leadership. That really began when I was leaving Binghamton and going to the University of Nebraska.

My context affects me in terms of the work that I do. So if I’m doing work in the military, it affects my thinking about things. If I’m working with public schools or the police, which I have, it affects me. When I moved to Nebraska, I found that there was a high degree of value placed on authenticity. If you’re a farmer and your neighbor next door breaks a hip or something, you say that you’re going to come over and take care of business, and then you take care of business. Nebraska’s an agrarian society in terms of its ‘roots’ and there’s a lot of that metaphorically in the soil. I saw that in people.

I had the opportunity to meet Warren Buffet—who had graduated from the University of Nebraska—when he came to speak. I could see that there was a certain level of genuineness to him that I would call authenticity. The concept evolved from there. Meeting a lot of people whose names you’d never heard of, but grew up with people like Warren Buffet who were also authentic. In fact, people used to joke with our business school dean that they recruited students from the Midwest, in places like Nebraska, because they feltthey were more honest. They had this brand of being honest, being true to yourself and these are characteristics that Bill George certainly talked about.


I brought on a post doc at Nebraska by the name of Fred Walumbwa from Kenya, who helped launch a lot of the research with me on authentic leadership. He has become well known in his own right for his work in this area. Bill Gardner also came to take a position with me in Nebraska. I had a leadership chair and he had an ethics chair. In 2002 we started to build that first summit on authentic leadership that was held in 2004. Then the books that came out Bill’s and ours made authentic leadership a topic for discussion.

Two groups worked on the foundational theory pieces for the first summit—our group and a group from Michigan State.  Ironically, we came up with identical models working completely independently except theirs was a little more focused on wellbeing, which we also later included as an outcome of authentic leadership. So, quite independently, we came up with the 4 components of authentic leadership including:  self-awareness, transparency, moral reasoning, balanced processing.

The whole idea was interesting in that they came up with the same concepts as we had come up with. Rarely do you find in the literature where two groups are going to take the exact same time writing a theory and both came up with identical components. We did that by going back to the literature, back to Plato and Aristotle and then moving forward and each group of authors ended up in virtually the same place  We also added some unique concepts  that had not been covered in prior literature such as transparency and balanced processing.

Russ: Say more about that.

Bruce: I think the justice literature would refer to balanced processing as being a core justice construct, which is you make decisions based on having a balanced view of things and that you’re trying to incorporate different thoughts and perspectives before you make a judgment. You need transparency in order to get the data to make those kinds of decisions. If people won’t be transparent, they won’t be able to be balanced in their decision-making.

Russ: Great. I’m going to shift the focus a little bit at this point because one of the things that you have brought up multiple times in our conversation and certainly it comes up in your writing is the notion of context. I think that you and David V. Day and his colleagues like to make a distinction between leader and leadership. I know I do as well. I think one of the big problems in the field of leadership studies is the sloppy use of language. Leader, leading, leadership, they tend to get used interchangeably.  I’ve published something in a Sage book where I advocate for a distinction among these terms and I’ll just share very quickly my distinction. Then I’ll ask you to talk about how you’re using these terms.

I talk about leader as a role in the sense that it’s a set of expectations held by all the stakeholders in that role. Leading is what someone does when they step into that role. Leadership is about not only the roles and what people do in those roles, but it is also about the culture and the systems within which they’re operating. Furthermore, if we’re going to talk about someone leading, we can get a sense of that by taking a snapshot. But if we really want to understand leadership in a system, we’ve got to have a movie. I’m wondering if those ideas resonate at all with the ways you’re thinking about or distinguishing leader and leadership?


Bruce: It resonates very well. I think that because when you say stepping into a role, I assume it doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal role.

Russ: Exactly.

Bruce: But it could be and some people step into the role and manage and not lead, and it can be a formal role. Now, I think the distinctions that you raised makes a lot of sense. I was thinking as you were talking about Joe Rost’s work.

Russ: Yes?

Bruce: You know, on the idea of the leadership episode within leadership. When you said the movie, when you think about leadership, it’s oftentimes a series of episodes that are connected together that you lead within and also between. It’s very much true when you think about strategic leadership that you lead within a certain episode that reverberates out into the organization, across time and intersects with other episodes going forward, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

Russ: Right. You mentioned Joseph Rost. He was one of the early people that I interviewed in Integral Leadership Review, about two or three years before he died. His work has always been among my favorites.

In any case, James O’Toole also wrote in a chapter for Warren Bennis and others’ edited volume, The Future of Leadership. He talked about research that he’d been while working with a consulting firm where they began to see increasingly that the effectiveness of individual leaders had a high level of dependency on the effectiveness of certain kinds of systems in the organization.

And you mentioned these in one of the things that you wrote where you mentioned the importance of rewards and recognition for supporting individuals in being effective leaders. Other systems variables that we could think of might include decision making processes or communication dynamics within and across boundaries as well as technology, organization structure, and a whole bunch of other systemic variables. It seems that you’re advocating for developing, not just the individual, but the organization. What is your thinking these days about those systemic variables in relation to leadership?.

Bruce: Well, leadership is always embedded in something. But then you know we were talking earlier about an extreme context. When you embed, take participative leadership in an extreme context, it may look different than if the context has nothing that resembles “extreme” in it. So the way we interpret leadership or the way we lead in those episodes are by definition embedded in and shaped by the context.

The context takes on a lot of interesting forms. One is the form of the mindset. We maybe call that culture or climate. Leading within that context of say different cultures takes on different meanings. In the Northwest of the United States, people expect you to dialogue before making decisions, whereas on the East Coast people want you to make decisions fairly rapidly and move on. These are different cultural contexts and they become part of the mindset. You see it in discussions in the way leaders interact. We just hired a new president from the University Utah and I could see the article about him emphasizing things like extreme listener and works collaboratively. They were assuring all of us about the cultural mindset, a set of checkmarks about the culture here at the University of Washington.

He even values what the faculties think. There you go, he must be collaborative!

So I think that the context is such an important part of leadership. The problem is where does the context begin and end? Is it in talking about the culture of the mind or is it something that’s really truly physical and separate. So for example, I did some work early on in Canadian Correctional Services and actually more recently in the United States, as well as in South Africa. Each of those cultures or countries had a different impact on the correctional services, how inmates were looked at, how development was perceived, the investment in leadership, development, things like that. So the context is such an important part of understanding leadership. I always sort of joke when I go to conferences that we take the context and we put it inside a little bubble and we call it a moderator.

And for me, it oversimplifies the different levels. I mean you have the historical context. For example, the behavior of people walking around here today in the United States is a function of things that happened a hundred years ago in this country. It still shapes the way we think and the way we behave. But it doesn’t have that impact on a new Korean student who’s doing his Ph.D. here at the University of Washington, because he is not part of the historical context, at least not as strongly. To me the context is the historical, it’s the proximal, it’s the distal context that ends up shaping how we come to enact and understand leadership

Russ: So, in a way it’s a biological notion of leadership and the interplay between the individual and the collective in terms of culture?

Bruce: Yes. Culture is one obviously important context.

Russ: Right. And are you doing anything by way of looking at other kinds of variables such as the more systemic as opposed to cultural, the structural, the process, the technology, things like that?

Bruce: Yes, depending on which study we’re looking at, we certainly are looking at some of those. I’m doing work currently with a couple of people here, one of my doctoral students, on what I’ve called distributed strategic leadership because so much of strategic leadership is seen as top management team in terms of the literature, a CEO.

What we’re talking about here is that leadership is embedded in the strategic leadership of an organization. What I mean by that is that the strategic leadership in an organization frames messages and reinforces certain ways of doing things. Those ways are enacted at subsequent levels of the organization or reinforced by the messages. The leadership at each level is embedded in the structure of strategic leadership and the process of strategic leadership. You might look at an optimal situation for the strategic leadership of an organization. Let’s take a hospital system that really is promoting patient centered care as their main core message. You would expect that the conversations and the way leaders go about emphasizing, reinforcing, looking for aspects of patient care, would be focused on patient centeredness. You would expect that to be distributed throughout the organization in such a way that you’d have a very high degree of alignment around that.


Now pick something else. Pick anything. I think leadership at those subsequent levels is embedded in the strategic leadership of the organization.

Russ: I find that really fascinating. I’m reminded of how Shell Oil and other companies have used scenario development to do strategic planning, although I think that’s probably the least valuable function of scenario development processes in organizations. Itis much more about developing even the metacognitive capabilities of the individuals who go through the process, as well as creating linkages within organizational systems. Another piece I published with Keith Bellamy talks about scenario development as leadership development, because it’s developing individuals as leaders while they are going through the process of developing the scenarios. At the same time, scenario development is informally restructuring the networks within the organization. That’s a form of leadership development. Does that sound like it’s in accordance with the things you’re talking about?

Bruce: Well, from the development side, yes. I think from a strategic leadership point of view, strategic leadership in an organization articulates a scenario, which is part of their schema for how they want to see the organization evolve. They spend a lot of effort and energy trying to get that inculcated in others throughout the organization. Using scenarios might be one way of getting people to come to a deeper level of understanding about the direction that they should be heading in. I think when it’s enacted, it’s a way of teaching meta-cognitive thinking as you said.

Russ: Right. Well, let’s refocus on the individual for the few minutes we have left. You have referenced in your work the large amounts of money, historically, that has been spent on leader development. Generally, in terms of the value added that has been achieved through that, has not gotten all those high marks. If we’re talking about individual leader development and the qualities that you’ve been talking about and writing about in your work, it seems to me that we’ve got to stop thinking about leader development as an event, as a short workshop or something like that, and encompass many of the other kinds of leader development activities and processes that you referenced in your work. I’m curious if you could give us a picture of that.

Bruce: One of the reasons why I’ve taken that position is that I truly want people to take leadership development more seriously. The one way to get people in organizations to take it seriously is to monetize it. Until we monetize it and know what the return is, it’s always going to be something that the majority of the people will say that it’s nice to have, unless we’re short on resources.

One of my main purposes is not to eliminate leadership development but to recast it. If you asked experts in brand management 15 years ago, “What’s the value of the brand?” they would say it’s a lot. Today, they’ll tell you it’s four clicks and three milliseconds into the website and how much money it’s going to generate. They have a much better sense of what a brand is and its worth to an organization. I think from our point of view, in leadership development we have to push that and we have to force ourselves to think in a more, I don’t want to say quantitative way, but in a way that makes us more accountable. By being more accountable—I’m sure of this—development that actually does work would stick better.


You know, there are some things out there and being used for development that are based on well- developed theoretical frameworks and empirical research. For example, I am sure we can do transformational leadership coaching and have an impact on people. But to the extent that the organization doesn’t hold the individuals accountable for doing it, coaching and the people who are being coached, it just won’t stick.

As Kegan says in his book, there are tremendous immunities to change in organizations. And organizations will literally kill development very easily. So I think we have to look at leadership events as being embedded in the life stream of one’s overall development and find ways to make development more accountable.

From an accountability point of view, as well from looking at it as embedded in the one’s lifestream, I think if we were to make leadership development more part of the natural process of development that goes on in organizations and is reinforced daily, we would not have to transfer it back to the job. You don’t have to take on insurmountable immunities because it’s part of the natural process or ebb and flow of an organization, which would no doubt increase the return on development investment in leadership.

The surgical development program I mentioned to you, that’s an example of what I am referring to above. We asked them how much time they would have to do development. They said none. Then I asked, does surgery start on time? And they said, no. I asked, if we were willing to scrub up and go into surgery and do development, would you be willing to accommodate that? And they said, “Yeah, we get tired of talking about what our kids did on a weekend in soccer, so we’d learn something.” Okay, great! We ended up not doing it in surgery, because they let us go into the briefing beforehand, before they actually walked into surgery. Development is embedded in their normal flow with challenges that they normally experience through dialoguing with people they normally work with. So that’s an example of embedding leadership development in the natural course of things in organizations.

Russ: Great. I know just in the last couple of years you moved from Nebraska to the University of Washington. The second edition of your book, Full Scale Leadership, came out last year. What’s new on the horizon for Bruce Avolio in the field of leadership studies?

Bruce: Besides life issues, there’s an awful lot to learn.


Here are a few things. I am trying to examine leadership from a total systems perspective so that, if you looked at an organization and you were able to quantify all of the different episodes of leadership and the levels at which they occurred, you could see that some would be shared, some would be direct, some would be indirect, some would be large collectives leading and some episodes would be one on one. I think at the end of the day, we could optimize the organization’s leadership system by looking at it in a more comprehensive and integrative way. So that’s one area that I’m really looking at and trying to examine distributed strategic leadership.


Another area that relates to what I described above relates to a question I came across a few years back of what constitutes the value of leadership? When you ask yourself that question, it is like what is self-awareness? When you ask yourself that question, you start to realize that there are all sorts of ways that one can look at the value of leadership. So let me put myself in the role of an equity analyst. When equity analysts ask, “What is the value of the corporation?” they look at things like what is the debt equity ratio, what is the market that the company operates in, what are new innovative products, investments, tc. But they also ask the question what is the quality of leadership?

When we interviewed equity analysts around the world, we wanted to confirm that leadership is one of the most important things in their estimates of the valuation of a firm. They do in fact think the quality of leadership is extremely important. That’s why they like to go to investor days, so they can hear from what they consider to be the leadership of the organization, the top management team. They look at all sorts of things like  management’s behavioral integrity—if they said last time, they are going to grow by 3%, 4%, do they? They look at their demeanor. They look at even the tone by which they present. Are they optimistic? Are they genuinely optimistic?

So I’m really interested in literally what’s the value of leadership. If I have my equity analyst hat on, I’d like to know what the dollar value is of leadership, net present value, future earnings, etc. Going back to my total leadership system example, I think the equity analysts look at a very, very slim, narrow range of what constitutes the leadership of an organization. A great top management team can’t execute unless the people below them and below them and below them are aligned and are ready to move. I think we’re going to see increasingly a lot more focus on what constitutes the value of leadership and how can it be monetized.

In fact, when I did a presentation on this, which I’ll do again in a couple of weeks I usually start out with a slide that it looks like the Zagat rating for a restaurant. The question I ask is, How close are we now to a Zagat guide rated leader? We certainly have it with basketball coaches in college. We certainly have it in football. In fact, we have far more data on college coaches then we do on the CEOs of our corporations, far more.

If you go down one level, we don’t know anything about the next level. I’m working with Forbes Research on some stuff in that area, as well as the consulting firm Oliver Wyman. We are trying to figure out how analysts value leadership.

The third area is looking more at development the total leadership of an organization. About ten, maybe 15, years ago I went down to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana and I went out with units in the field who were training. We were studying transformational leadership at that time in combat units. In fact, we published an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology on platoon units and their leadership. We found that the sergeant’s relationship with the lieutenant was really important. They would say, “Duh, of course it is!” We actually measured it and looked at if they were transformational or not together. We spent three days out in the field, running around in Humvees and getting shot at with blanks, fortunately, sleeping on the hard ground. One of the things I saw day after day was an entire battalion going through a debriefing in less than three hours. I was with what they called an observer-controller, a kind of Organizational Development consultant that does development on the ground and he said, “I’m going to show you something. I’m going to go from squad to the battalion leader in the next hour with you and I’ll show you how all these things interconnect.”


And so we did. You know, I saw squads doing After Action Reviews out in the field in the rain. I saw platoon leaders sit down with company commanders. I saw company commanders with their leaders, so on up the line until I got to the briefing by the lieutenant colonel of the battalion. What was interesting was in this one battalion I mean there were just tremendous gaps. The lieutenant colonel presenting  thought they did great during their missions that day. They had done terribly. He was completely out of touch with his units. There was a lot of dissention. They clearly weren’t ready and were failing in every sense. In another battalion, I saw there was a lot of alignment; there was a lot of consistency. The issues that had come up at one level were coming up at the next.

Based on that experience, I said someday I would love to test an organization in its entirety, to take them through and say, “Okay, are you ready to acquire this company? Let’s test it. Are you ready to merge? Let’s test it. Are you ready to launch this new product list? Let’s test it.” So I’m working with 23 year olds building a gaming simulation that will represent, I think, the first leadership enterprise system where we’ll actually be able to test if we want 12,000 employees interacting with each other as if they were in the organization assuming characters. We’ll be able to look at it as maybe the next generation of “live action cases” or cases without any borders like we have with paper based cases. Instead of a business case that you read, you are in the case creating it.

Russ: The After Action Review I always thought of as being an extremely valuable model. I actually introduced it a lot in working with project teams in organizations. I just think it’s really important. You know, I feel like I could talk to you for days and never be finished, Just one last question: is there anything I haven’t asked you, you wish I had?

Bruce: People always ask me, why did I get into studying leadership? I found my passion spot in terms of the work I do. It’s very generative to see leaders emerge and help and facilitate or to understand why certain leaders do what they do. And it has been something I can think about early on that I’ve always been fascinated by reading about historical leaders. I was intrigued trying to understand the context that they operated in from an early age.

I love the fact that I am frequently in organizations from surgical suites to police stations to military units to some trading floor in New York or a technology company in Bangalore and I don’t quite understand all the acronyms, but I do understand the leadership dynamics. It has been a really interesting journey to be in a field where you literally are relevant to every organization on Earth. It generalizes to every organization including the one I’m sitting in and at the same time, everybody has a theory of it, which is a fundamental challenge for developing it. [Laughs]

And I’m not just talking about people like us. I mean everybody. That’s sometimes the dark side of it—trying to get through to folks that there are some ways that we can systematically look at this and not come across as, well that’s what academics do or suggest. No that’s what really great leaders do. So anyhow, that would be it.

Russ: Thank you so much, Bruce.

Bruce: Thank you.