The Social Contagion of Leadership. What Are You Spreading?

One day around 2010, I vividly remember a leadership team meeting where I felt completely off balance and most likely frightened about the world and our company. Likely, it was about cash flow, over-purchased inventory, or some impossible technical issue. I lost my temper, said horrible things to my team, and thought they were idiots. In reality, I was the idiot, overwhelmed by fear and insecurity, leaking negativity like an oil tanker running aground. This spill affected everyone, even though it was invisible.

As leaders, how we show up sets the tone for everyone around us. Our energy, mindset, and actions ripple out, influencing the atmosphere and the people we interact with. This phenomenon, known as the social contagion of leadership, highlights leaders’ profound impact on their environments.

What is the Social Contagion of Leadership?

Social contagion is the spread of behaviors, emotions, and ideas through a group. A single person’s mood can influence an entire meeting, or a leader’s attitude can shift team dynamics. Essentially, what we bring into space—our energy, mindset, and behaviors—can be “caught” by others, much like a cold.

Why It Matters How We Show Up

Setting the Tone: As leaders, our presence can elevate or deflate a room. Walking into a meeting with a positive, calm demeanor can create an atmosphere of openness and collaboration. Conversely, entering with stress and negativity can trigger a cycle of fight or flight, making the environment tense and unproductive.

Creating Psychological Safety: When leaders show up with authenticity, empathy, and openness, they foster an environment of psychological safety. This means people feel safe expressing themselves, sharing ideas, and taking risks without fear of judgment. Teams are likelier to engage in meaningful dialogue in such environments, leading to more significant innovation and impact.

Influencing Wellness: Our habits and lifestyle choices—what we feed our heads, bodies, and souls—directly affect our energy and mindset—leaders who prioritize their well-being model healthy behaviors for their teams. Leaders who lead by example can create a culture of wellness where self-care and balance are valued, ultimately leading to a more resilient and productive organization.

The Cycles of Social Contagion

Negative social contagion of leadership

Fight or Flight: When leaders operate from a place of stress or fear, it can create a contagious cycle of fight or flight within the team. Meetings may become unproductive, with individuals more focused on self-preservation than collaboration. This atmosphere stifles creativity and open communication, hindering the team’s potential.

Positive social contagion of leadership

Giving and Receiving: Alternatively, when leaders embody a cycle of giving and receiving—offering support, appreciation, listening actively, and being open to feedback—they foster an environment of trust and mutual respect. This creates psychological safety, allowing individuals to speak up, share ideas, and contribute fully. Such an environment not only enhances individual well-being but also drives collective success.

What We Feed Ourselves Matters

As leaders, we must be mindful of what we consume—mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Mental Diet: What we read, watch, and listen to shapes our thoughts and attitudes. Consuming positive, growth-oriented content can help us maintain a constructive and inspiring outlook.

Physical Health: Nourishing our bodies with healthy food, exercise, and adequate rest ensures we have the energy and resilience to lead effectively.

Emotional and Spiritual Well-being: Practices like mindfulness, meditation, and connecting with nature can help us stay centered and grounded, enabling us to show up with clarity and calmness.

In Conclusion

Social contagion underscores the importance of how leaders show up in any space. By being intentional about our presence and the energy we bring, we can create environments that foster psychological safety, collaboration, and well-being. This, in turn, enables our teams and organizations to thrive, making a more significant impact in the world. As leaders, let’s commit to feeding our heads, bodies, and souls with the best so we can show up as the best version of ourselves, inspiring those around us to do the same.

How do we keep our oil from leaking everywhere? We stop carrying oil and start carrying love, care, compassion, and curiosity. To change the energy of how we show up, we must develop habits, routines, or disciplines that become rituals. Rituals change us quietly, subtly, because we allow ourselves to move towards a better version of ourselves.

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