How to Be a Good Boss: Start by Understanding Why You Want to Lead
Skip to content
Leadership Organizations Careers Sep 6, 2016

How to Be a Good Boss: Start by Under­stand­ing Why You Want to Lead

Research explores the pros and cons of two dis­tinct lead­er­ship styles.

A boss decides which leadership style to use.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Jon Maner

Charleen R. Case

Kids on the play­ground and mil­i­tary gen­er­als both know that there are two ways to hold onto pow­er. You either dom­i­nate every­one and demand their sup­port, or you get them to like you and offer up their feal­ty freely.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

Those two lead­er­ship styles — moti­vat­ed by the desire for either dom­i­nance or pres­tige — are exam­ined in research from Kellogg’s Jon Man­er. Each one has pros and cons, and they work best under dif­fer­ent circumstances.

It’s not that one strat­e­gy is good and one strat­e­gy is bad,” Man­er says. They both can work in dif­fer­ent kinds of organizations.”

And both can work with­in the same leader. The research shows that most peo­ple who have a dri­ve to lead oth­ers har­bor both skill sets; one is just gen­er­al­ly more dom­i­nant than the oth­er. The key to effec­tive lead­er­ship, Man­er says, is to be able to nim­bly switch between them.

Although the two traits are pos­i­tive­ly cor­re­lat­ed, they have very, very dif­fer­ent con­se­quences for lead­er­ship behav­ior, often oppo­site consequences.”

Part of matur­ing as a leader is self-insight,” says Man­er, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. And a lot of that self-insight involves know­ing who you are as a leader and where your skills lie. How can you learn to lever­age the strengths of both mind­sets while avoid­ing the pit­falls of each? Because they do each have pitfalls.”

Dom­i­nance vs. Prestige

One of the most inter­est­ing find­ings, Man­er says, is the strong cor­re­la­tion between a desire for pow­er and being moti­vat­ed by both dom­i­nance and prestige.

Although the two traits are pos­i­tive­ly cor­re­lat­ed, they have very, very dif­fer­ent con­se­quences for lead­er­ship behav­ior,” Man­er says, often oppo­site consequences.”

Maner’s recent research, which he con­duct­ed with Charleen Case, a vis­it­ing pre-doc­tor­al schol­ar at Kel­logg, is an in-depth look at of both his own and oth­ers’ stud­ies. It takes an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, not­ing that pri­mates have a long his­to­ry of using dom­i­nance tech­niques, while pres­tige-moti­vat­ed lead­ers are a strict­ly human phe­nom­e­non. Looked at in aggre­gate, the stud­ies paint a clear pic­ture of the two types of leaders.

Dom­i­nance-moti­vat­ed lead­ers rise through the ranks and gain fol­low­ers via intim­i­da­tion and coercion.

They demand def­er­ence instead of allow­ing it to be freely offered,” Man­er says.

There are upsides to this. They are swift, deci­sive deci­sion mak­ers and are good at unit­ing an orga­ni­za­tion behind a sin­gle vision. How­ev­er, these lead­ers are some­times will­ing to sac­ri­fice the best inter­est of the group in order to keep their hands on the levers of pow­er. (Read more about Maner’s research on why bad boss­es sab­o­tage their teams.)

For instance, par­tic­i­pants in one exper­i­ment were told they were lead­ing a group and had to decide which sub­or­di­nates to assign to a dif­fi­cult ver­bal task and to a dif­fi­cult math task. One sub­or­di­nate was par­tic­u­lar­ly gift­ed in ver­bal skills, they were told.

Dom­i­nance-moti­vat­ed par­tic­i­pants who believed their grasp on pow­er with­in the group was ten­u­ous were much more like­ly to assign that sub­or­di­nate to the math task, even though the per­for­mance of the group would osten­si­bly suf­fer. This kept the tal­ent­ed sub­or­di­nate from shin­ing too bright­ly. Con­verse­ly, par­tic­i­pants who test­ed as being high in pres­tige moti­va­tion assigned that sub­or­di­nate to the ver­bal task.

Pres­tige-ori­ent­ed lead­ers achieve their sta­tus by dis­play­ing their knowl­edge and skills, and con­vinc­ing peo­ple they are worth fol­low­ing. They are good at fos­ter­ing cre­ativ­i­ty and get­ting their teams to inno­vate. How­ev­er, because their pow­er comes from being liked, they can some­times for­go mak­ing the right deci­sion in favor of a pop­u­lar deci­sion. Addi­tion­al­ly, they pull their punch­es when it comes to giv­ing hard feed­back,” Man­er says.

One study found that pres­tige-ori­ent­ed lead­ers go against what they see as the best course of action for the orga­ni­za­tion when mak­ing a pub­lic deci­sion that will be unpop­u­lar. But if the deci­sion is made with­out sub­or­di­nates know­ing, these same lead­ers will stick with the best choice for the group.

Lead­er­ship Styles in Action

In his class­es, Man­er points to Steve Jobs and War­ren Buf­fett as exam­ples of dom­i­nance- ver­sus pres­tige-dri­ven lead­er­ship styles. These days, it is hard to con­tem­plate these two styles and not imme­di­ate­ly think of Don­ald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Trump is a par­a­dig­mat­ic exam­ple of a dom­i­nant leader,” Man­er says. “ Clin­ton, I think, and Oba­ma for that mat­ter, are much bet­ter at fos­ter­ing rela­tion­ships. And that’s much more about prestige.”

Inter­est­ing­ly, Maner’s research con­sis­tent­ly shows that there is no cor­re­la­tion between lead­er­ship style and gender.

Every­body has the intu­ition that men are more dom­i­nant, and I have to admit that when we start­ed this pro­gram of research, we had that intu­ition as well,” Man­er says. How­ev­er, we nev­er found [a cor­re­la­tion]. Women are just as like­ly to deploy both of these strate­gies as men are.”

Iden­ti­fy­ing Your Lead­er­ship Style

So what kind of leader are you? Man­er offers some easy ways to tell.

Do you find your­self doing most of the talk­ing in meet­ings? If so, you are like­ly a dom­i­nance-moti­vat­ed leader. Where­as, if you’re doing more lis­ten­ing, you’re prob­a­bly more prestige-oriented.”

Anoth­er ques­tion to ask your­self: Do you often men­tal­ly step into the shoes of your employ­ee? If so, you are like­ly a pres­tige-moti­vat­ed leader.

There are sim­i­lar lit­mus tests you can do when you are hir­ing or assess­ing team members.

Try to put the per­son in a group set­ting, Man­er sug­gests. Dom­i­nant peo­ple tend to dom­i­nate con­ver­sa­tions,” Man­er says. They don’t lis­ten very well. While oth­er peo­ple are talk­ing, they’re think­ing about the next thing they’re going to say.”

A tricky wrin­kle is that dom­i­nance can often ini­tial­ly mas­quer­ade as competence.

They may not know the most, but they assert them­selves in ways that make them seem like they do,” Man­er says. So, as a check, try to give can­di­dates an objec­tive test of their knowl­edge and skills, or have some­one join an inter­view who can quick­ly assess whether what the per­son is assert­ing is correct.

Anoth­er sub­tle sig­nal of lead­er­ship style, which bears out in stud­ies of oth­er pri­mates, is that dom­i­nance-moti­vat­ed peo­ple tend to low­er their voice when assert­ing them­selves in a social situation.

Peo­ple who care more about the rela­tion­ship, they don’t do that because it’s intim­i­dat­ing and oth­er peo­ple don’t like it,” Man­er says.

The Right Leader for the Right Organization

Man­er knows that much of the research in this field has paint­ed a fair­ly mag­nan­i­mous pic­ture of pres­tige-moti­vat­ed lead­ers. And, if you have to pick one, he says pres­tige is the bet­ter bet.

But the choice real­ly comes down to what your organization’s goals are.

When you need all the peo­ple on your team to present a uni­fied front and move quick­ly in a com­mon direc­tion, when you don’t have time to have peo­ple think­ing out­side the box, that sit­u­a­tion real­ly calls for a dom­i­nant leader,” Man­er says. Con­verse­ly, if you’re try­ing to get your team to inno­vate or pro­duce cre­ative solu­tions, that calls for more of a pres­tige-ori­ent­ed strategy.”

Your organization’s struc­ture can also dic­tate which sort of leader will thrive. Very hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions with large pow­er gaps between posi­tions appeal to dom­i­nance-moti­vat­ed lead­ers. They real­ly like to have a lot of dis­tance between them­selves and their under­lings because that helps them main­tain pow­er,” Man­er explains.

Those large pow­er gaps make pres­tige-moti­vat­ed lead­ers uncom­fort­able. It makes them feel anx­ious because they real­ly val­ue the rela­tion­ships,” he says. They tend to work best in orga­ni­za­tions that are rel­a­tive­ly flat.”

The research shows that dom­i­nant lead­ers are will­ing to sab­o­tage their own teams when they feel their pow­er is unsta­ble with­in the orga­ni­za­tion. Yet the oppo­site is true when faced with an exter­nal com­pet­ing group. This tends to gal­va­nize dom­i­nance-moti­vat­ed lead­ers to pri­or­i­tize the good of the group over any self­ish desires,” Man­er says.

So orga­ni­za­tions with a strong dom­i­nant leader might ben­e­fit from high­light­ing the suc­cess­es of their com­peti­tors to keep their leader’s bad instincts in check.

Because most lead­ers are versed in both lead­er­ship styles, the key is know­ing when to slip into each mode, Man­er says.

Good lead­ers intu­it the need for one strat­e­gy over anoth­er,” Man­er says. But there is always room for improve­ment in know­ing which hat to wear depend­ing on the situation.”

Featured Faculty

Jon Maner

Member of the department of management and operations from 2014-2017.

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the senior research editor at Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Maner, Jon K., Charleen R. Case. 2016. “Dominance and Prestige: Dual Strategies for Navigating Social Hierarchies.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. In press.

Read the original

Suggested For You

Most Popular


How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.


Why Warmth Is the Under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Skill Lead­ers Need

The case for demon­strat­ing more than just competence.

Most Popular Podcasts


Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.


Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.


Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.