What does it mean to lead?  

Leaders influence others (i.e., subordinates and followers) to behave coherently and in a way that will achieve determined goals. This influence comes from the perception of a leader’s personality, emotion, motivation, and behavior.  A good leader – someone who not only sets goals that benefit an organization, but also achieves those goals – is usually someone who combines all of these factors in a way that fits his or her organizational context.

Make no mistake, leaders are not necessarily born.  Leadership is a set of skills and behaviors that can be practiced, trained, nurtured and developed.

So leadership is all about influence, and influence is all about perception?

Generally speaking, yes. The outcomes of leadership are reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of employees, and, taken one step further, in positive organizational results such as growth and profit. In this sense, a leader’s influence and effectiveness actually comes from the subordinates’ perception of that leader. The tricky part is that this is not always consistent with a leader’s intention; perception is subjective and can be biased and distorted.  Thus, successful leaders are attentive to others’ perceptions of them, in addition to their organizational or personal goals.

Can you talk a little bit about your own background? 

I was born in the northwest region of China and went to Guangzhou, the country’s 3rd biggest city, for college.  After graduation, I co-founded an international trade company, with a business focus on LED and green technology, Fulighten Optoelectronics Tech Co. Ltd.  In 2009, I decided to leave the private sector — being an entrepreneur had made me curious about leadership issues and I wanted to take a closer, more academic look at them.  So I returned to my education and went to NYU for a master’s degree in science, majoring in Organizational Behavior, and then on to the City University of New York (CUNY), for a Ph.D. in Management.  And now I’m teaching what I learned — and continue to learn through my consulting and research work — in programs at IE Business School.

The years in New York City transformed me into a global citizen and inspired my decision to keep expanding myself in that way and move to Europe. The opportunity to learn Spanish was one of the specific motivators in coming to Spain. I believe it is critical nowadays to understand cultural differences and to be able to work in a diverse environment, and one of the best ways to learn this – if you can manage it – is through immersing yourself in a new language and a new country.

How do you balance research work with life?  

I “escape” from the intense theorization and data analysis of my research work by activating the artistic of my brain.  My hobby is  jewelry design. When I am sketching and making samples,  my nerves relax and the rational side of my brain iss energized.  I’m also a “gym rat;” I like to exercise!  I am a psychology/behavior scholar after all, and thus a true believer in the ways that hysical exercise stimulates endorphin levels and is a benefit to both mind and body.

How does your work draw on other studies, for example psychology or philosophy?  

One could argue that the field of management is relatively new, especially compared to other social sciences, and thus management research relies heavily on what has come before – from fields such as psychology, political science, and sociology. For example, my research on leadership usually applies social psychology theories, such as social exchange theory, to explain the interactions between leaders and their subordinates.  Political science research can likewise provide insight for understanding leaders and organizational politics in a business context. For example, when we look at the ways in which charismatic political leaders gain popularity during campaigns, we can better under understand the ways in which charismatic business leaders work and why they sometimes do not deliver the efficiency and success that is expected of them at the helm of a company.

So charisma and leadership don’t go hand in hand?

Generally speaking, charismatic leaders are those with personal charm and persuasive commutation skills who formulate and articulate a clear vision that inspires their followers.  Media attention these days will have you believe that charisma is the ingredient to being a successful leader. However, being charismatic is not a necessity for a good leader, neither is it always a positive thing.

Like all different types of leadership, charismatic leaders only work well in certain organizational contexts, for example when subordinates need visionary guidance or the company needs public attention. Moreover, charismatic leaders often come with a cost. There are plenty of examples of charismatic business leaders who have failed their families, employees, companies, or even society at large. Research points to the connection between charisma and the so-called Dark Triad personalities (i.e., narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), which makes charismatic leaders a tricky phenomenon. A recent example is the entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, whom many once considered “the next Steve Jobs.” She received an enormous amount of media attention for her leadership style and vision but was accused of fraud and her startup Theranos is now defunct.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter of Steve Jobs, is a must-read book for those interested in charismatic leadership (or simply fans of Apple products.) It gives a different perspective of Steve Jobs as a legendary business leader, and contributes to our understanding of charismatic leaders with a fuller picture that is not limited to professional successes but also includes the personal life.

Is it always obvious who the leader is on a team?  

In addition to a formal, appointed leader, many teams have what we call informal leaders. These people might not have a particular title or authority, but their peers regard them as someone with experience and insight.  Again, we come back to the role of perception and influence in the definition of leadership.

In work teams with or without an authorized leader, employees with more proactive personalities are more likely to emerge and step into an informal leadership role, which makes them the center of their social networks and brings them more resources. In this scenario, over time, proactive employees are usually obvious as the informal leaders in teams and are usually the ones chosen when a more formal leadership position comes up.

What are the characteristics of a proactive employee?

Proactive people take personal initiatives at work. When facing difficulties, these individuals usually seek changes that may challenge their environment rather than being constrained by it. For example, innovation often consumes quite a bit of resources. In order to achieve a goal that involves some sort of innovation, proactive employees are more likely to make new connections, expand their networks, and seek external resources. These efforts are beneficial not only for achieving their predetermined goal, but also serve to cultivate the environment around them and further their individual careers.

How much influence does management have on the tone, work ethic, and behavior of employees? 

Management, especially leadership, has become increasingly important these days. Executives usually set the tone for organizations, and that includes ethics. When there is a toxic culture at an organization, you can more often than not trace the source of contamination back to the executives or the founder. Thus, it is essential that business schools continue to nurture and develop business leaders with high ethical standards.

What can a leader do to positively influence employees to be their best selves at work?

First of all, said employees must be capable of performing their jobs, and secondly, that doing so makes them feel happy and satisfied. Leaders can then help improve employee performance – in addition to the traditional monetary motivators – by providing training (e.g., knowledge and skills) and role modeling (e.g., work ethics), visionary guidance, proper job design, empowerment and autonomy (particularly with knowledge workers), timely and contributive feedback. It is essential that employees feel that their work has meaning and that there is the opportunity for growth.

With the current revolutionary trend of big data, AI, and machine learning and how they affect management, I expect challenges (some interesting, others difficult) will arise in how leaders manage the above practices and, more generally, in our traditional understanding of leadership.

Professor Ma was interviewed and photographed by Kerry Parke in Madrid.