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Leadership and Sustainability

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Article by: Dr. Nadia Said

My friend called me the other day. She is a smart and successful woman, and she has just been promoted to a leadership position in middle management. “I don’t know why they chose me,” she said. “I have no experience in leadership.” What bothers her most is the lack of a mentor or at least some type of settling-in period. She is replacing someone much older and with a strong personality, which does not make the job any easier, especially as this person seems reluctant to provide her with any guidance. “I feel kind of lost,” she admitted. “There is nobody in the department with whom I could discuss my questions on this topic.”

Even though there is a vast body of literature on how to be a successful leader, there still seems to be a gap between knowledge and application. Traits such as self-awareness and self-mastery (Caldwell et al., 2016) as well as emotional (Côté et al., 2010) and social intelligence (Goleman et al., 2008) are, for example, key ingredients for leadership success. However, while talking to my friend, I wondered whether telling her to improve her emotional intelligence would really be helpful in her current situation.

I can understand why my friend was chosen for a leadership position. Being intelligent, self-reflective, ambitious, high-principled, and committed to excellence, she is well equipped to succeed in this role. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement. But she has not received any feedback about her skills that—if honed—would help her to become a good leader or areas in which she is still lacking. My friend was simply thrown into her new position and left to figure it out by herself.

According to recent academic findings, having formal (e.g. training programs) as well as personal support (e.g. mentoring network) is crucial for leadership effectiveness. Role modelling and coaching from a supervisor are particularly helpful (Seibert, 2017). It is vital to have one or more competent and trustworthy mentors to rely on, not only for advice regarding how to motivate team members, for example, but also for active support when it comes to personal growth, which is especially important for novice leaders.

One of my friend’s most pressing questions was about communication: “How can I tell someone that they are not ready for a given task and need more training without offending or discouraging them?” With the current crisis, the pressure to have excellent communication skills has intensified. “People are getting increasingly anxious. Addressing this is a huge challenge.” Her voice sounded strained and tired. “I really need a practical solution right now, not some abstract theory.” And I wholeheartedly agree with her.

In our blog post series Leadership: Putting Theory into Practice, my colleague Maximilian Jungmann and I will address topics including women and leadership, the impact of emotional as well as social intelligence, and the importance of leading by example. Within each topic, we will cover the theoretical background and provide practical guidance. We aim to contribute to the existing literature on leadership by taking a pragmatic approach that will help to bridge the gap between the theory and the practice of leadership.

What topics interest you most? Please answer our short survey, which will help us write about issues that matter to you.


Caldwell, C., & Hayes, L. A. (2016). Self-efficacy and self-awareness: moral insights to increased leader effectiveness. Journal of Management Development, 35(9), 1163-1173.

Côté, S., Lopes, P. N., Salovey, P., & Miners, C. T. (2010). Emotional intelligence and leadership emergence in small groups. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3), 496-508.

Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard business review, 86(9), 74-81.

Seibert, S. E., Sargent, L. D., Kraimer, M. L., & Kiazad, K. (2017). Linking developmental experiences to leader effectiveness and promotability: The mediating role of leadership self‐efficacy and mentor network. Personnel Psychology, 70(2), 357-397.

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